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Leadership The Canadian public’s trust in corporations is broken – how do we fix it?

Vanessa Eaton is a senior vice-president at Toronto-based marketing communications agency Proof Inc.

Trust is not only good for employees, it’s also good for business. Yet every day we see evidence of broken trust increasingly on display. Unethical behaviour birthed from unclear corporate values, short-sighted performance incentives, and leaders spread too thin can all contribute to breaches of trust.

Ontario cannabis producer CannTrust Holdings Inc. is an example of trust breaches at the highest levels of executive and board leadership, with unacceptable consequences for shareholders and employees. SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. has a new CEO working to restore trust in the engineering company as fears of an employee exodus threaten to become the latest operational crisis.

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In Canada we have entered a time of declining trust in corporations, institutions and in leaders. Data from Proof’s 2019 study of Canadians shows that trust in CEOs or most senior bosses among their own employees fell to 45 per cent in 2019, down 10 per cent from 55 per cent in 2018. We also see a decline in trust by the public in all sizes of businesses, with large corporations now trusted by only 20 per cent of Canadians. Small and medium-sized enterprises achieve only slightly better with a trust level of 36 per cent.

Canada needs more self-aware leaders who recognize how trust can positively impact internal culture, team performance and the bottom line. Earning and protecting trust takes time, patience and commitment. It involves making ethical, difficult decisions and trade-offs. Here are some trust-building practices that leaders can consider within their own organizations.

Lead for trust

Trust should always be on. It’s not a light switch that can be turned on or off. In optimal environments, trust is the guiding light that allows leaders to steer people through calm and rocky waters. Building trust begins with a leader’s character and is reinforced by how leaders consistently behave. From our study, the top characteristic traits that build trust include: honesty and integrity, both at 91 per cent, transparency at 86 per cent, and authenticity at 84 per cent. Great leaders recognize that trust encourages employees to be open and to become more actively involved in learning, experimentation and problem-solving. Take Microsoft as an example. Under new leadership Microsoft transformed its culture into one that leads with trust and transparency, where exploration is rewarded, and mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities. Growth followed.

Give trust to build trust

Trust often starts because you’ve given it. Effective delegation and asking for help or advice signals to team members that you believe in them and value their opinions. Moments of vulnerability or shared exchanges of honest discussion also builds trust. A leader who is never wrong never gets the truth from others. When employees feel valued and part of a team, they can fully embrace their roles and see them within the larger context of the organization, leading to greater success for all. Columbia Sportswear, for example, is a highly trusted company that lists empowering people as a core value and demonstrates how this belief is brought to life. In 2018, they achieved record high net sales of US$2.8-billion. Trust equals results.

Make trust part of your business plan

To build and protect trust inside organizations takes commitment, supporting processes and unwavering attention on the part of boards, senior leadership and managers to recognize and reward trust-building behaviour and habits. This starts at the top by building trust into business and strategic plans and by embedding truth, integrity and transparency into corporate values. Team members need to see their colleagues acting with the understanding that integrity is an essential component of their company’s success. A trust plan must also include deliberate action to shut down trust detractors and snuff out unethical, disrespectful or other negative behaviour. All of us can make mistakes that can erode trust, but once a successful track record of trust has been established, it’s easier to repair and regain trust.

Building trust should be a deliberate part of every leader’s agenda. How a company behaves internally is based on what it values and rewards, and this internal behaviour dictates how a company conducts itself externally with its customers and stakeholders. If companies want to attract and retain the best talent, see business results sustained over time and celebrate great reputations, business leaders can’t afford to put trust on the back-burner. Canada will be stronger if we all pursue a trust-building mindset.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

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