Breaking the fall of trust in institutions

A global survey shows a sharp decline of trust in government, business, and other institutions. Rebuilding trust starts with qualities that lessen the fear of rapid change or end corrupt practices.

Warren East, CEO of Rolls-Royce, poses at the company's aerospace engineering and development site in Bristol, Britain, Dec. 17.

Rolls-Royce, the British engineering giant, took an unusual bow of penitence on Tuesday. It apologized “unreservedly” after being fined for bribery world-wide. And to regain the confidence of its workers, customers, and investors, it promised to be a “more trusted” business that “wins right” in securing contracts for its jet engines.

The company, like many before it, was smart to come clean. Trust is a rare commodity these days, and not only in business, according to a new global survey. After 17 years of polling, the Edelman marketing firm found that trust in four institutions – government, business, media, and nongovernmental organizations – took the steepest drop ever last year.

Almost two-thirds of people surveyed in 28 countries do not trust the four institutions to “do what is right.” More than 50 percent say “the system” is not working for them.

The rising distrust may help explain the attraction of anti-elitist and ultranationalist political leaders from the Philippines to Europe. More than 70 percent in the survey say government officials are not at all or somewhat credible. And the credibility of business chief executive officers fell 12 points to 37 percent.

Edelman warns that trust must be rebuilt soon to avoid a downward cycle. As people lose faith in institutions, they also become more fearful, furthering eroding trust. Last year, Edelman found that two-thirds of Donald Trump supporters held strong societal fears compared with 45 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters.

In addition, more people worldwide are relying on themselves or peers – often via social media – than on experts. A good example: 59 percent of those surveyed would believe a search engine over a human editor. The reason: More than 80 percent of people distrust traditional media.

Yet a large majority also hope that companies can act to improve conditions in the communities where they operate. Rolls-Royce may be an example. A new CEO is rebuilding trust from the workplace up, ending practices that bred corruption while setting an example by taking far less in benefits than his predecessor. “We now conduct ourselves in a fundamentally different way. We have zero tolerance of business misconduct of any sort,” says CEO Warren East.

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