Trust - Wikimedia Commons

Has trust in our dynamic, global marketplace reached a crisis level over the last year? According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, the answer is “yes.” This annual, global survey finds the number of countries falling into the “distruster” category increased to two-thirds from one-half in 2016. For countries in this category, trust in business, government, media and NGOs to do what is right is below 50 percent.

When looking specifically at the world of work, the 2017 barometer shows that business is distrusted in 13 of 28 countries. If you work at a STEM-based organization (one driven by science, technology, engineering and math), the 2017 barometer provides some positive results and areas needing attention in the healthcare, technology and financial services sectors.


  • Trust in healthcare overall and all five subsectors (pharmaceutical/drug companies, consumer health/over the counter, biotech/life sciences, insurance and hospitals/clinics) is on the rise.
  • Although it is improving, healthcare still remains low compared to other industries.
  • 80 percent of people believe that the pharmaceutical industry puts profits over people.


  • The technology sector is trusted in all but one of the countries surveyed and by 76 percent of the general population.
  • People are not convinced that the tech sector is adequately transparent and authentic in how it operates, nor are they clear on how technology is contributing to the greater good.
  • Recent innovations, such as driverless cars and blockchain (the software platform for digital assets such as Bitcoin), remain distrusted.

Financial Services

  • Despite the global macro-economic upheaval and its impact on the financial services industry, trust in the financial services sector continues its upswing.
  • Rather than focusing on the next benchmark that helps beat the competition, it is more important for leadership of financial services companies to understand why customers are asking for a fix.
  • To protect consumer data, financial services companies must be proactive about the safeguards and processes they have in place to respond to a cyberattack.

Trust and Business Leadership

What does the 2017 barometer show regarding business leadership? The credibility of the CEO as a spokesperson has hit an all-time low. Specifically, CEO credibility declined in all 28 countries surveyed. Now, “a person like yourself” is as credible as an academic or technical expert, and far more credible than a CEO. This implies that the primary communication considered credible flows in a horizontal direction (e.g., peer-to-peer).

According to the 2017 barometer, key operational attributes help to build trust in companies. Having “highly-regarded and widely admired top leadership” is one of these attributes. Unfortunately, the 2017 results show this attribute had the largest gap to close when its importance was compared to how companies are doing on it.

These findings combined suggest that companies and the leaders who operate them have some work to do regarding trust. If you are skeptical of the results from the 17th edition of the annual survey, reality test the findings in your own ecosystem. Organizational assessments (e.g., engagement surveys) frequently identify trust as a topic of concern.

Building Trust

When I talk with leaders about building trust, many of them get uncomfortable, because they see trust as a nebulous concept. They know when it exists in a relationship, but they struggle with what to do when it is lacking.

If you find the task of building trust unsettling, look for ways to make trust less nebulous. I have found that leaders resonate with a practical way to define trust based on the work of David Maister. This practical way is summed up by the following equation for trustworthiness:

T = C + R + IC

T = Trustworthiness

C = Credibility (gauged by words), “I believe what this person says regarding…”

R = Reliability (gauged by actions), “I believe this person will…”

IC = Interpersonal Comfort (gauged by emotions), “I am comfortable discussing…”

S = Self-Orientation (gauged by motives), “I believe that this person cares about…”

In this equation, increasing the amount of credibility, reliability and interpersonal comfort increases trustworthiness. Conversely, greater self-orientation decreases trustworthiness. With this equation as a frame of reference, it becomes easier to figure out approaches to build trust. Keep in mind you need to consistently use these approaches to effectively build trust.

Over the last year, trust has taken a hit on a global scale according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer. Since business contributes to the trust decline, companies can play a key role in improving the state of trust. By using a practical frame of reference for building trust, leaders at these companies can determine the right approaches to establish positive momentum.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Trust by Terry Johnston from Grand Rapids, USA via Wikimedia Commons)