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How Geopolitics is Testing Trust and What to Do About It

Trust is a frequent topic of this blog, and with good reason. As Fortune CEO Alan Murray pointed out in a recent newsletter, “Trust has been a lubricant of business since the beginning of time.”

Murray was using his newsletter to summarize a discussion among 20 CEOs on what I found to be an interesting premise — that “recent demands on business to play a broader role in society have made the trust equation more complex.” If any of the CEOs disagreed, they didn’t voice that opinion. Or at least Murray didn’t make note of it in his newsletter.

Don’t confuse “complex” with “important.”

Trust has always been important to organizational success, even if some leaders haven’t always valued it as much as they should have. And the importance of trust was the thrust of the comments Murray shared from the CEOs. They talked about building trust with customers, with employees, and with shareholders, and they talked about the role trust plays in creating stability in light of the craziness the world has experienced the last few years.

People want to know what you believe as a leader and as an organization. They want to see that you are making decisions that are true to those beliefs.

But what makes the “trust equation” more complex than it might have been two or three years ago? I think Richard Edelman nailed it. His organization does an annual “trust barometer” to measure how much the public trusts institutions like the government, media, and business.

“Geopolitics is the new test of trust,” he said. “Before that it was sustainability, DEI, reskilling, wage levels.”

Geopolitics is a big, bad can of worms. And spiders. And every other creepy, crawling thing that makes decision-making more challenging. It’s the challenge of knowing customers, employees, and shareholders are looking to businesses to weigh in on and take action on issues that are soaked in political and moral juices.

Russia invades Ukraine? What will your business do about it?

If you respond and how you respond will to some measure impact the trust you have with others. And the same can be said about any number of other issues. Sustainability, DEI, reskilling, and wage levels haven’t gone away, after all. And often times public opinion is much more divided than it is with, say, Russia’s invasion.

Complexity really enters the picture when 40 percent of your stakeholders think your business should do one thing, 40 percent think you should do the opposite thing, 10 percent think you should do nothing, and the other 10 percent aren’t aware of the issue and don’t really care.

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I can’t tell you want to do in those situations, but I can suggest that you don’t over-complicate it.

  1. Know your mission and purpose and make sure everyone who matters knows them, as well.
  2. That means you have to know who really matters to you and your organization and who doesn’t. Don’t let chirping critics who don’t have a legitimate stake in your decisions overly influence those decisions.
  3. Decide what you will do, even if you aren’t going to do anything, and explain the reasoning behind that decision to those who matter.
  4. Do what you say you will do.

People want to know what you believe as a leader and as an organization. They want to see that you are making decisions that are true to those beliefs. And if you back that with actions, you will earn and keep their trust. Otherwise, as ING Americas CEO Gerald Walker pointed out, the trust that previously arrived on foot will leave on horseback.

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