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Research Insight

Leadership in a Divided World

A New “Business as Usual”

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Change. For the better. It’s what the mass population wants and they’ve realized that NGOs can’t do it alone, and certainly government continues to disappoint. Perhaps that’s why business this year — more than NGOs, media, or government — saw the largest uptick in trust among the general population in the 2016 Edelman TRUST BAROMETER reports. This gain by business is narrowing the lead that NGOs have historically maintained.

But this trust cannot be taken for granted. While trust in business has grown and evolved, so have respondents’ expectations of what business must do.

Certainly, business leaders must focus on strong financial performance, but increasingly, people correlate societal action with trust in business. Eight in 10 respondents believe that a company can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the community where it operates. And the same number say it’s the responsibility of business to lead to solve societal problems — that’s a six percent increase from just a year ago. Action on the environment, improving access to health care and education, and the eradication of poverty are among the areas where people say business has a right — and a responsibility — to address.

In a divided world where there are significant gaps in trust between leadership and the mass population, business leaders must embrace a new approach, one that revolves around action, values, employee advocacy and engagement.

Action: Despite the uptick in trust, there is still misalignment between the actions business is taking and what people expect. Most people perceive that CEOs focus too much on short-term financial results and lobbying, and not enough on job creation and positive long-term impact. At the same time, 80 percent believe CEOs should be personally visible in discussing societal issues.

Values: Increasingly, people want to understand and hear about the values that a business and its leaders espouse. Almost eight in 10 people say that hearing information about personal values is important to building trust in a leader. Business and its leaders should be authentic and visible not only in talking about its actions on societal challenges, but the values that underpin those actions and its operational performance.

Employee Advocacy: Employees are one of a company’s most trusted spokespeople, and yet the BAROMETER points to a glaring missed opportunity in this regard. Roughly one-third of employees don’t trust their own company. By engaging employees, the data shows that business will see the development of a broader cadre of trusted spokespeople — individuals who are more inclined to recommend their company as a place to work and recommend their company’s products.

Engagement: The fact that one’s “friends and family” are more trusted as content creators than journalists, and that search engines are the most trusted source of information underscores the fragmentation of today’s media landscape. Engaging with the mass population is more complicated than ever and companies must acknowledge the full suite of today’s content creators in an integrated, purposeful manner.

A small cadre of enlightened companies are excelling in each of these areas, and their leadership no doubt has helped business begin to climb out of its distrusted status. Others must join them, however, or the business sector as a whole risks losing a vital connection with the mass population, one that’s essential to their future financial performance.

Kathryn Beiser, global chair, Corporate practice.

Image by Getty.
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