A spring update to the worldwide Edelman Trust Barometer has shown that senior government officials are more trusted than business chiefs on efforts to lead citizens through the Covid-19 crisis. (Edelman, 5 May 2020)
Published last week, the update – entitled Trust and the Covid-19 Pandemic – reveals that trust in government surged 11 points to 65% since the Barometer’s previous update in January, making it the world’s most trusted institution for the first time ever. Indeed, government trust rose by double digits in six out of the 11 markets surveyed, including the UK (24 points), Canada (20 points), Germany (19 points) and South Korea (16 points).
Broadly, respondents want government to take charge in every major area of the coronavirus response – for example, containing the pandemic (73%); helping people cope with it (72%); keeping the public informed (72%); providing economic relief and support (86%) and returning countries to normal service (79%).
In addition, a majority (61%) are more willing to give up their personal health and location data to governments than they would be under normal circumstances to help contain the spread of the virus. Almost three-quarters of the survey sample feel that pandemic-related restrictions on freedom of movement are now entirely reasonable and appropriate.
While trust in firms rose by four percentage points on the previous update, the new figures flagged several areas of concern.
Half of the respondents believe that businesses have been either poor or mediocre at putting people before profits, or even outright failing in that area. Fewer than one in three (29%) think that CEOs and other corporate leaders are doing an outstanding job of meeting the demands that the pandemic has placed on their shoulders, compared to scientists (53%) and national government leaders (47%). National leaders (53%) and scientists (52%) are also more trusted than CEOs and business leaders (34%) to develop new policies that will ensure nations are better prepared for a future crisis.
Edelman CEO Richard Edelman said: “Faced with one of the biggest health and financial crises in history, people are turning to their governments for leadership and hope. The speed and scale of the lockdowns, the brave performance of the public health services and the extent of public expenditure to support the private sector have shown government taking quick, decisive action.
“This is a stunning turnaround for government, which has always languished at, or near, the bottom of the trust hierarchy.”
Conversely, he noted: “Business has been drifting for the past three months as government has led the first leg of this race. Now it’s time for business to sprint to the front of the pack as the focus shifts to reopening the economy.”
Edelman added that this is a “moment of reckoning” for firms and stressed that they must deliver on the promise of a stakeholder approach “by filling their supply chains with small businesses and the retaining and reskilling of workers.”
Is Edelman correct in his assessment of the factors behind the Barometer’s new figures, and what bosses must do to improve their standing?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “In our Trust in Leaders 2018 research, public-sector employees had the lowest level of trust in their CEOs, compared to the private and third sectors. So it’s interesting in light of these new figures to see such a pronounced change. It’s not entirely surprising, because everywhere in the world, people have been forced to rely more heavily than ever upon their public services, and the individuals who provide those crucial facilities are going above and beyond on a routine basis. In fact, that goes for essential workers right across the board, such as supermarket staff, delivery drivers and people who are administering grants for charities. It’s quite incredible to see how their standing in our communities has risen.
“However,” she points out, “when we turn specifically to leaders in the private sector, we’re faced with the same, perennial questions: are they living their values? Are they creating trustworthy reputations? Are they properly looking after their staff? And are they effectively explaining what steps they are taking in order to do so?”
Cooper notes: “In the past few weeks, we’ve heard anecdotal evidence of companies that are claiming furlough grants while still requiring their staff to come into work. That is absolutely unacceptable. To an extent, staff will be relieved to return to work if they’ve suffered financial hardship as a result of the lockdown. But if they harbour misgivings with their employers’ conduct throughout the early stages of the crisis, will they be engaged enough to go that extra mile?
“Will suppliers who have been treated badly in the past seven weeks put difficult firms to the front of their queues? Will customers and clients who’ve heard negative news about unscrupulous employers be lining up to purchase products and services from them? If you look at coverage of firms such as Amazon and Wetherspoons, it’s hard to see whether reputational issues around employee welfare have a direct, commercial impact. But it’s an area that merits significant research, and I’m sure that will happen with respect to certain firms once we have begun to recover from – and reflect upon – this crisis.”
Cooper adds: “We at the Institute have always advocated a stakeholder approach. You cannot disproportionately reward one stakeholder – or group of stakeholders – at the expense of the others and expect that to be sustainable. As a result of this crisis, ideas of morality and what’s important to society have risen to greater prominence. Questions are being asked around the world of what constitutes good government – and the answers don’t always come down to economic factors. All the arguments that stemmed from New Zealand’s Wellbeing Budget last year about GDP being an insufficient gauge of a nation’s progress are becoming more and more accepted. These are big questions that the business community needs to engage with.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on building trust