Matthew Bishop spent 25 years as an editor and writer at The Economist, including as business editor and New York Bureau Chief, and is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He cofounded the Social Progress Index.
The new year began with the Omicron variant seemingly everywhere. Yet there are still good reasons to hope that in 2022 much of the world will move decisively into post-pandemic mode. If so, expect a “new normal,” different from the old normal we left behind in early 2020. How different, exactly? Much will depend on whether, and in what ways, we can rebuild that essential foundation of modern living: Trust.
“We were born to trust, but we were born to trust only a few. Over the centuries, we have developed the instincts and tools and institutions to expand our circle of trust to millions,” writes economist Benjamin Ho in his timely new book, “Why Trust Matters.” In it, he argues that this long expansion of trust has been crucial to our growing prosperity and human progress. COVID-19 provided an unprecedented global stress test of those supposedly trust-enhancing instincts, tools, and institutions. Sadly, the crisis revealed many of them were wanting — from our governments and their leaders and the social contracts between the rich and the rest of us to the media and social media, and the networks of experts meant to guide public thinking on everything from medical science to economics.
The pandemic also challenged how we saw even those few fellow humans we were born to trust — our families and neighbors, doctors, teachers, co-workers, and others, whose hugs or handshakes suddenly became a potential death sentence. Nonetheless, it was bubbles and pods of the few that most of us trusted for support in getting through the physical and mental ordeal of the past couple of years. Making sense of this simultaneous deepening of trust within our immediate circles and weakening of trust in those outside them is certain to be a big theme of post-pandemic life.
What will it take to rebuild trust, or preferably, given that declining trust is an issue that long predates the pandemic, to build trust back better? That is the focus of this first collection of essays from the new Edelman Trust Institute. On topics ranging from government and work to racial inclusion and climate change, our writers describe the significant challenges ahead and offer practical ideas for building trust in 2022, while making it clear that failure to do the right things could have very bad consequences for our world.
Towards Trustworthy Government
Early in the pandemic, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update: Trust and the COVID-19 Pandemic reported a surge of trust in government. As I predicted back then, this proved to be a short-lived “trust bubble”, probably owing more to the desperate hope that governments would deliver than to any genuine trust that they would. And indeed such hope in most countries quickly vanished as the death toll mounted. By January 2021, the Edelman Trust Barometer found that around the world, governments generally were less trusted than both business and NGOs, though they were still slightly more trusted than the media (see 2021 in Review: Edelman Trust Barometer). A majority of those surveyed believed that government is neither ethical nor competent (while, as they also believed, business, uniquely, is both).
“Make sure what you say and what you do are always aligned”, says Dan Schulman, PayPal’s President and CEO, in his interview with Rik Kirkland. That is surely the first law of trust building. Hypocrisy is a trust destroyer, one in which those running the British government’s response to COVID-19 have led the world — delivering a series of embarrassing breaches of their own rules, from driving long distances unnecessarily and love affairs conducted outside approved pods of contacts, to Downing Street throwing an office “Christmas party” during a national lockdown. Yet Boris Johnson and team are hardly alone in this; even Sanna Marin, the usually sure-footed prime minister of Finland, was caught nightclubbing when she should have been quarantining.
Incompetence is another trust destroyer — and while debate is likely to continue for years about how well or (mostly) poorly different governments performed during the pandemic, and at different stages of it, two years in, even those that performed well initially are losing their sheen. For instance, the popularity of New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has been falling lately, despite a miniscule COVID-19 death rate in the country, as frustration with lockdowns has coincided with the worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic
Perhaps it is simply too hard for any government to consistently get the answers right when tackling a horrendously complex challenge such as a pandemic, one that requires the right balance to be struck between often competing demands from the public for effective health care, economic prosperity and personal freedoms. The time may have come, as Juha Leppanen argues, for more “humble” governments. Instead of claiming — and being expected — to have all the answers, policymakers, he suggests, should be honest about their limitations and prioritize collaboration with others, including political opponents, to solve the biggest problems.
Some of that humility and collaborative spirit will also be needed to make the world’s multilateral governance institutions trustworthy. The rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus was, in part, a direct consequence of our previously having been too trusting in the international system, as we allowed the barriers between us to be torn down without putting in place the detection mechanisms and other protections that could have stopped the melting pot of globalization from becoming a hyper-efficient system of deadly disease transmission. The World Health Organization has struggled to fulfil its role, not helped as the pandemic took off by both (temporary) hostility from the United States and a lack of transparency from China.
A major effort will be needed to create a high-performing international system, capable of dealing better not just with potential future pandemics but other looming global disasters, from climate change to rising geopolitical tensions such as between the USA and China. The failure of richer countries to supply anywhere near enough vaccines and financial support to the world’s devastated poorer countries further reduced those countries’ trust in the fairness of the international system. This will make it even harder to reach consensus on crucial global reforms, as was painfully clear during the recent COP26 climate change talks. Doing something quickly to begin rebuilding this trust between nations should be a high priority, especially for rich country governments, in 2022.
That Difficult Return to the Office
For many of us, the most significant act of new normalization in 2022 will be returning to the office. As Kevin Delaney argues, there is every chance that employers will botch this transition, not least by failing to allow flexibility and autonomy to workers who feel they now deserve the trust of their bosses, having so diligently worked remotely during the pandemic. We may now suffer from zoom fatigue, but few of us want to return to the grind of the old five-day schedule of breakfast meetings, rush hours and so on. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, workers currently trust “my employer” more than they trust any other institution. But that could change fast if employers do not reciprocate that trust and instead attempt to enforce an inflexible policy of “turn up at the office or you’re fired.” Far better that bosses act with emotional intelligence and truly engage with their employees to get the remote versus office balance right.
Bosses will also have their hands full in 2022 building trust with minority employees and customers on workplace inclusion, and with all of us, on their pledges to fight climate change. June Sarpong outlines six practical priorities for would-be inclusive leaders, whilst Natasha Landell-Mills argues that all the recent enthusiasm of company bosses for pledging to make their firm a “net zero” emitter of carbon will add up to, well, absolute zero if these pledges do not come with an action plan and a set of accounts that truly reflect the financial implications of tackling climate change— which, for many people, may this year replace the pandemic as the most pressing global challenge.
Ending the Infodemic
Even the world’s most famous optimist, Bill Gates, fears that in 2022, “decreased trust in institutions might be the biggest obstacle standing in our way.” For this, he pins much of the blame on growing polarization, driven not least by social media, which “has played a huge role in spreading misinformation that makes people suspicious about their governments.” And it is not just governments that are being hit by this so-called “Infodemic.” Gates himself has been at the center of one wild conspiracy theory popular among anti-vaxxers as they spread misinformation about medical science. The creation and rapid deployment of vaccines against COVID-19 is a truly remarkable achievement, so the refusal of so many people around the world to get vaccinated is perhaps the clearest indicator we have of the severity of the current trust crisis.
Trust in the mainstream media has also been weakened through misinformation attacks— though Sharon Moshavi has some good ideas for how journalistic organizations can fight back. So too have NGOs, which Lysa John and Mandeep Tiwana believe should have experienced rising trust due to their heroic work during the pandemic yet have been hurt by lies spread by populist politicians who want to weaken civil society. They call on civil society organizations to make more use of social media and other communications tools to build trust.
Unfortunately, building trust with one group by undermining trust in another seems to be far easier today than building trust in inclusive ways that bring everyone closer together — though it is the latter that the world needs in 2022. Nor is it obvious what to do about the tendency of social media to isolate people in information bubbles that reinforce their own biases and prejudices and increase their over-confidence in being right. On this, even Gates admits, perhaps for the first time in his life, “The truth is, I don’t have the answers.”
No one said rebuilding trust would be easy. But it should be at the top of everyone’s agenda in 2022
No one said rebuilding trust would be easy. But it should be at the top of everyone’s agenda in 2022. Perhaps some innovations will help. The blockchain may start to live up to its theoretical promise as a “trust engine.” Old ideas may find new relevance, too. In his book, Ho argues for more use of apologies to build trust — especially sincere apologies that come at some personal cost. Ultimately, trust will come to the trustworthy. PayPal’s Schulman is right: The crucial thing is for our words and actions to be aligned.
Hopefully, these essays will stimulate further conversation about how trust can be rebuilt this year — and may even provide an actionable idea or two for your own efforts at building trust.