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It’s not surprising that trust is an increasingly rare commodity, is it?

The global communications firm Edelman is out with its 21st annual Trust Barometer revealing “widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world.”

They surveyed thousands of people in 28 countries and found trust in governments has plummeted since the pandemic began. It was already low in the United States and it dropped an additional 5% since the November election.

And when it comes to the media? Five or six years of the president braying about “the Fake News” has taken its toll. Edelman says trust in information sources is at a record low.

Business fares slightly better.

In the last few months, trust in US-based businesses has increased. And business got a higher trust rating than government, non-governmental organizations, and the media.

In much of the world, people are particularly likely to trust the business they work for. In the US, even “trust in my employer” is lower this year than in the past, though still higher than trust in government or media.

What should institutions do?

CEO Richard Edelman blames the numbers on “an epidemic of misinformation.” He calls on all of the institutions to “restore facts to their rightful place at the center of public discourse as the essential step to emerging from information bankruptcy.”

There’s a particular opportunity here for businesses. When the government is absent, people clearly expect business to step in and fill the void. The report suggests all those CEOs were on the right track last week when they issued statements condemning the violence at the U.S. Capitol.

People want the bosses, especially their own, to take the lead on societal problems.

Nine in 10 respondents said they want CEOs to speak out about racial issues, the pandemic and job automation, and more than two-thirds rely on businesses to step in when the government falls short.

It’s not all on them though.

Edelman says we each have a responsibility to practice good information hygiene. “That means regular engagement with news, engagement with differing points of view, verifying that information and not amplifying or spreading misinformation.”

You may not be surprised to hear that only a quarter of the people surveyed said they actually do those things.

Here’s another view.

Instead of looking only at big government, big business, and big media, what if we look in the mirror? Seems like it’s worth asking, what can we do to be trusted?

In assessing how trustworthy institutions are, Edelman considers two dimensions. Are they competent? And are they ethical?

That gives us something to work with. People decide how much to trust us based on their impression: are we competent and are we ethical?

About the competence question. When a potential client, customer, or employer considers our work, is it up to snuff? Do we meet or even exceed the standard? Are we good at what we do, whatever that might be?

And then there’s ethics. Do we tell the truth? Are we aboveboard with our finances? Do we offer fair value in exchange for compensation? And when something goes wrong with our work, do we make it right?

I’d add one more component to this question of trust. Are we reliable? One of my mentors’ mantra was, “Do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it, the way you say you’ll do it.”

Competence + Ethics + Reliability. That’s a pretty good formula for being trustworthy, don’t you think?

Here’s the rub.

It’s tough for someone to know for certain how competent, ethical, and reliable we are when they most need to know: before they engage us, buy from us, or hire us. They’re really making an educated guess based on our reputation, referrals, and maybe our resume.

And depending on what kind of business we’re in, that can be high-stakes guess we’re asking them to make. What makes them decide to take the risk?

We need to set the stage for being trusted.

We lay the groundwork for trust in us with the way we communicate. Here are a few examples.

  • When we look someone straight in the eye and tell them about the value we offer, we look like a person they can trust. If I stare at my shoes while I’m talking business with you or my eyes dart around the room, I instantly make myself suspect.
  • When we’re calm and steady during a business conversation, it puts the other person at ease. Fidgeting, shuffling, fiddling with our clothes or hair makes us seem uncomfortable. And that raises questions about our credibility.
  • When we speak at a comfortable pace, put a period at the end of a sentence, and pause, we sound trustworthy. Rattling on and on or repeating ourselves raises questions about our credibility. And you know what they say about the fast-talking salesman.

The good news is these trust-boosters are all skills that can be developed. I know because my clients are mastering them all the time. Lately I’ve worked with real estate agents, scientists and sales professionals who want to start from a standpoint of trust in their business conversations.

In a world where trust is so rare and so fleeting, it behooves us to develop the inner qualities that create trust and the outer traits that convey trust. When you have both of those going for you, you’re way more likely to achieve your goals.

I’m curious about your take on trust – post a comment below about who you trust (or don’t) and how you make sure people trust you.