The State of Trust

Monday’s presidential debate was yet another reminder that we live in a political era during which temperament and trust are front and center. It has been fascinating to observe how differently voters perceive the candidates’ personalities and integrity, and how these divides go to the heart of whether large segments of our country will trust the next president. Coverage of Monday night’s event centered around the trust issue, with pundits and voters lamenting that neither candidate seems transparent nor trustworthy. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll found that 45 percent of voters think Clinton is “honest and trustworthy”; 43 percent say Donald Trump possesses those qualities.

Are those numbers high enough? I don’t think so, but I acknowledge that recently, the nature of trust and leadership has become less uniform. I’ve been passionate about the role of trust in business since the start of my career. As a young associate, I saw the breakdown of trust in stark terms during the New England banking crisis, and the importance of gaining and retaining stakeholder trust stuck with me.

So, how we can build trust these days? Through shared experiences? Shared identities? Track record? Whose job is it — the CEO’s or the employees’? Then, once you have it, what sustains it — what you said or did four years ago or what you’re saying and doing today? Does it come down to how you stand at a podium or prepare for a televised event? Is it dependent on the number of likes and shares you receive on social media?

The answer is all of the above and much more. The reality is that trust is very personal, which presents a challenge and an opportunity. Yes, this complicates matters for those looking to rise up the trust ladder among diverse stakeholders, but it is also indicative of the responsibility and respect trust deserves. It speaks to the care we are all required to take in a global, diverse, and fast-changing world. As PwC’s chairman, it’s something I think about every single day. After all, building trust in society and solving important problems is at the heart of who we are as a business.

The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer points to an alarming trust gap between elites and the rest of the world and warns that those who ignore the opinions of the latter do so at their own peril. Two points particularly resonated with me: first, people trust those to whom they can relate. Finding common ground is extremely important. Second, leaders no longer gain trust simply by being educated, privy to information as part of an exclusive group, or because they have an impressive title. Through my transition to senior partner, I’ve made it a point to remember that daily. Trust must constantly be earned. It’s not a destination, but rather a journey. It requires non-stop attention and focus on the greater good.

Trust-building opportunities are constant. I believe that’s one reason why purpose is rising on the list of business priorities. In these moments, it’s critical to convey not only a deep understanding of the world around you, but the empathy and proof that you have listened and synthesized the issues impacting all stakeholders. This is as true when we engage clients about their strategies for the next ten years as it is when we engage colleagues and friends about discussions on race.

My life experiences thus far, both business and personal, have convinced me that trust needs its own strategy. I watched the debate looking for signs that these candidates had figured that out.

If you constantly nurture and grow trusting relationships, your stakeholders will be there to pick up the pieces when you stumble. But you have to give them a reason to believe in your integrity and good intentions. This goes beyond words to actions — a trustworthy leader needs to show people, whether voters or employees, why they should trust him or her. Today, everything you do counts because there will be someone to remind you of it tomorrow. Gaining someone’s trust doesn’t mean you are simply able to check the box — it means you’re only getting started.

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