Mission Impossible: Building trust in the public arena

My work is in the public arena, in the space between people. That means I spend a lot of time feeling the impacts of polarization, disconnection, fear, anger and distrust. In the last few years it has become palpable; so much so that I’ve called this time “a time of outrage.” In 2020, we layered the emotional, financial and social impacts of a global pandemic over top of it like icing on a cake. It’s not just the virus that is contagious, it is the emotion surrounding the virus that is also spreading, further infecting the polarized space between people.

Trust in the public realm is foundational to society and government functioning. Trust is easy to break, and extremely hard to build. For the last 20 years, I’ve taught countless people that trust is made of these components:

  • commitment (doing what you say you will do);
  • capability (having the resources, skills, knowledge etc. to keep your commitments); and
  • caring (making people feel valued, cared for and like they matter).
  • Sometimes when trust is strong, there is a 4th component — reciprocity. You trust me, and I also trust you.

Even though I’ve taught those elements as the recipe for building trust for 2 decades, I think I’ve been wrong. I think they are insufficient and simplistic, and so much easier to say than to make real. Trust is more nuanced and complex than I’ve noted, especially in a time of outrage where people are reeling from the disruption and chaos of the pandemic.

I went back to the drawing board this year to re-think trust in the public arena — this space where we citizens, communities, governments, the media and the private sector interact and influence public policy, programs and societal direction. Since public trust is at an all time low, there has never been a more important time to consider what it will take to start the long journey of re-building.

When things break, they often need to be remade in different and changed ways. Perhaps that is one of the opportunities presented by the disruption of this time?

I started with a definition of trust: the Oxford dictionary defines it as a “belief in reliability, truth, ability and strength of someone or something.” The definition has multiple components but I’m not sure I support that “strength” is a factor that consistently contributes to trust. Perhaps trust is more subtle?

It seems to me that trust is a belief, a feeling and a set of behaviours, and a rich interplay between actions and mindset.

There is inter-personal trust and also institutional trust. Trust is essential to strong relationships and also to the functioning of society. The Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) defines trust as “A person’s belief that another person or institution will act consistently with their expectations of positive behaviour.” Now there are more distinctions the previous definition — the space between what I expect of you and what you deliver, beliefs and behaviours, and also the element of consistency.

I did a lot of research into trust. There is a large body of work around inter-personal trust, and/or organizational trust/perception but less research in the realm of the public arena. Noted here are 4 different examples that break down the components of what it takes to make trust real.

Source: brenebrown.com

  1. In recent years, Brene Brown’s research into shame, vulnerability and connection has yielded highly impactful tools for living a fuller life. She created the BRAVING acronym to outline the 7 core components of trust.

Key to developing strong inter-personal relationships, some of her work is challenging to translate to the public realm.

  1. The Harvard Business Review has published multiple articles on the role of trust in organizations and teams. An example of some of that research can be found in The 3 Elements of Trust published in February 2019 by Jack Senger and Joseph Folkman. They break trust down into: Positive Relationships, Good Judgment/Expertise, and Consistency.
  1. The OECD has done research and developed some guidance in the area of building public trust in government, in an effort to slow the erosion of trust in national governments. They break trust into 5 components, 3 of which are about values (demonstrated by behaviours and attitudes) and 2 of which are about competency. They include:
  • Responsiveness: provide or regulate public services
  • Reliability: Anticipate change, protect citizens
  • Integrity: Use power and public resources ethically
  • Openness: Listen, consult, engage and explain to citizens
  • Fairness: Improve living conditions for all

Now we see factors that make up trust that become more nuanced and that speak to the relationship between institutions and people, the leadership traits and characteristics that contribute to trust, and the actions that result in positive impacts that generate feelings of trustworthiness.

  1. Edelman are experts in the study of trust, and have been measuring trust with their global survey for 20 years. They break down trust into 4 components, highly focused on organizations:
  • Ability (competence)
  • Dependability
  • Integrity
  • Purpose (positive impact)

Since trust is a feeling, behaviour and attitude experienced by people, it has physical manifestations. Trust creates a neurological signal that produces oxytocin in our brains — the same hormone that is called the “love hormone” because it is released when we feel close to someone. Oxytocin increases empathy, decreases fear and allows us to strengthen relationships. Vulnerability stimulates oxytocin production in others — so when I am vulnerable with you, you produce chemicals in your brain that make you feel close to me. We have a physiological response to each other when we feel trust — its more than a concept or an idea.

High stress inhibits the production of oxytocin, and since we are living in exceptionally stressful times, it makes sense that trust and stress go hand in hand.

This amazing TED talk by Margaret Heffernan has some compelling messages we can translate into reflections about trust in the public arena. It takes more than competition, assertiveness (or aggression), high achievements, single focus on individual needs to build trust. In the case of super chickens, those traits result in disaster. Might that also be the case for humans? Look at the state we find ourselves in.

Social sensitivity (empathy), equal time and sharing of contributions, gender balance, social connectedness to each other — these things create high performance teams, and they must contribute to trust because without trust a team cannot perform. Margaret Heffernan says “What happens between people really counts. Because in groups that are highly attuned and sensitive to each other, ideas can flow and grow, people don’t get stuck or waste energy down dead ends.”

I put all of this thinking (and more) together, threw it in the blender and this is what emerged:

  • Trust requires a mix of actions (doing) and attitudes (being)
  • Trust is backwards looking, grounded in previous experiences and also forward looking, predicting future experiences based on perception
  • It is rational and also emotional
  • It is grounded in leadership that demonstrates courage, integrity, humility and empathy

Here is my first draft at a model to build trust in the public arena. It has four core components and an underlying foundation of commitment to action.

A model to build trust, Stephani Roy McCallum, Courageous Leadership Project

Here are my questions for you:

What does building trust in the public arena require of you?

What does building trust in the public arena require of leaders in our organizations and institutions?

How do we refocus our efforts to emphasize relationships, connection, integrity and equitable participation? We are a long way from that model of governing, operating and making decisions now.

What would you add or change about this draft model to build trust?

In the end, I think it starts with each of us making a choice to change the way we interact with others, no matter who they are, taking responsibility for our impacts and choosing to show up in the world with empathy, courage, integrity and humility. Then we need to choose leaders who do the same.


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