Opinion article

Trust, truth and leadership in corporate Australia

Steven Spurr examines the findings from the latest Edelman Trust Barometer and notes it is somewhat surprising to see Australians' trust in the four key institutions of business, government, NGOs and media has increased. 

As an advisor to many senior business leaders right across Australia, I can assure you there is rarely a conversation that doesn’t involve maintaining – or in many cases – regaining trust.

Trust is businesses' ultimate non-tangible asset. As a measure relative to reputation, which in many senses is a reflection of past behaviour, trust has the potential to impact future behaviour of your consumers, your stakeholders and your staff based on a combination of corporate behaviour, culture, ethics and performance.  

The Edelman Trust Barometer, now in its 19th year, tracks trust sentiment across the globe. The study looks at trust in four key institutions – business, government, NGOs and media – arguably the institutions that define our experience of trust in our day-to-day lives. Beneath these macro-measures, we also look in detail at the drivers of trust within each of these groups, and this year, our Australian results revealed some surprising changes to the state of trust in the nation.

Let me start by pointing out our very low base following the 2018 results. We recorded our lowest ever trust scores across each institution, and the largest gap in trust between the general population and the informed public (16 per cent of the Australian population, characterised as high income earning, tertiary-educated, frequent consumers of news).

2019 was not shaping up to be much different. From leadership spills to policy backflips, #MeToo to Barnababy, we’ve had plenty of ups and downs that have had an inevitable impact on Australians’ trust. This was further eroded by the banking Royal Commission, where ordinary Australians took to the stand to share their stories of deep personal despair and loss at the hands of organisations and institutions they believed would protect and indeed enhance their financial futures.  

Given the year we experienced, it was a surprise to see an increase in trust across the four key institutions of business, government, NGOs and media. In the general population, trust has risen fairly evenly in all institutions, but it is important to note that we still do not trust any singular institution. 

Put this in a global context and the Australian results sit just one point below the US. When we apply this to the informed public we’re sandwiched between the US and the UK – both countries which are weathering significant political upheaval. But the fears that have been magnified by Trump and Brexit don’t appear to have impacted Australia. In fact, relativism has helped put the minds of Australians more at ease – 81 per cent of the general population think that they have a better way of life in Australia than elsewhere.

While this may feel reassuring when we look from the inside out, the more telling data relates to Aussies looking from the outside in. We are pessimistic about our futures, fearful of the effects of innovation, automation and the impact of foreign trade. We continue to feel uncertain about our futures, and more often than not, we’re looking to business, and not government, for direction.    

One of the stand out results of this year’s barometer was the nine point rise in expectation of businesses (and CEOs in particular) to take the lead on societal issues rather than wait for the government to take action.

Moreover, Australians are looking to their employers for balanced information on important topics on which there is not general agreement. What we’re seeing here is a more pronounced shift in trust from government decision-makers, who typically operate in an isolated environment, to our own employers – institutions with whom we have daily contact, a sense of greater visibility and engagement.

This localised experience of trust runs deep. When we dig into our trust in government, it’s our experience at a local level that resonates most. Federal politicians are the least trusted agents of government when compared to state and local representatives and public servants, who are the most trusted.  

The trend continues when we look at the voices we believe to be most credible. It’s those closest to us (‘people like me’) who we hold as most trusted, alongside academic and technical experts.

Trust quite literally starts at home. It begins with how we engage with each other in our communities. It extends though our relationship with those we work for. Ultimately it is either deepened or devalued by the leaders we look to for guidance on micro and macro issues of the day. 

It has never been more important for the leaders of corporate Australia to lean into these conversations and provide their most valuable trust assets – their employees with honesty and action on the issues they hold dear.  

About the authors

Steven Spurr

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Steve joined Edelman Australia as CEO in 2016. He has over two decades of consultancy and in-house experience focused on brand building and re-positioning, influencer programming, and policy and systems change. Prior to joining Edelman in Australia, Steve was COO of Edelman UK & Ireland.