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Why Trust Has Declined: Too Many Signals of a Lack of Trustworthiness

Tue, July 30, 2013 5:00 PM | Robert Hurley (Administrator)

Every once in a while when you open the newspaper and turn the pages, you see story after story that helps explain why there has been such a vast loss of trust in so many aspects of our society. For example, if you picked up the Thursday July 18th issue of the New York Times, on the front page you would read about the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s allegation that JP Morgan devised “manipulative scheme” that led some states to overpay for energy.  On the same page, you also read that the poisoning and death of 22 school children in India may have been in part due to corruption and mismanagement. When you got to page 4, you learned that Xu Zhiyong, a scholar and human rights activist, was detained in Beijing. When you got to page 10, the headline read “In China and U.S., Mutual Distrust Grows, Study Finds” and then on the next page “Politicians Are Slowed by Scandal, but Many Still Win the Race.” If you were hoping for an improvement in the Business section right away, you would be smacked with the SEC case against a former Goldman Sachs trader accused of deliberately misleading investors. Then on page 3, there was a story about China baring a GlaxoSmithKline executive from leaving during a bribery inquiry, and on page 4, a report about the conviction of a Chevron employee of corruption charges in Indonesia was featured.  If you were courageous enough to read to Op-Ed, you would hear from Nasser al-Awlaki who expressed his frustration that his lawsuits have been judged “outside the court’s jurisdiction” as he tries to force the U.S. government to explain why his grandson, who was a U.S. citizen, was killed by a drone strike.


All of these stories cataloged different events but they all have one thing in common: they deal with trust. When agents deceive or manipulate, they are eroding trust. When agents are incompetent or corrupt, they are destroying trust. When governments use their power to silence legitimate debate or avoid accountability, they are eroding trust.  Trust is a judgment of confident reliance and we offer this precious commodity to those we judge as trustworthy. When we read about agents that are deceptive, corrupt, incompetent and those who try to gain unfair advantage, we file them away as signals of a lack of trustworthiness. If this happens too often, we become more cynical, untrusting and cautious. What is most frightening is that the research shows that when we lose trust, we also tend to disengage with the institutions we deem untrustworthy (e.g., Congress).


Consumers of media seem to have a preference for stories of scandal. Unfortunately it seems that reading about politicians, banks, oil companies and other trustees that are doing the right thing is just too boring for us. But we need to begin to find and celebrate those agents that have worked hard to manifest the core elements of trustworthiness (benevolence, competence, integrity and transparency). We need to give these trustworthy agents our trust, our business, our votes and withhold the same from the untrustworthy. The Consortium for Trustworthy Organizations will try to locate these virtuous agents and tell their story so others can learn and so you know in whom to place your trust. In the meantime, stay engaged, and don’t stop reading.

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