This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer introduces a new model of influence designed to build trust and, through that trust, to bridge the divide between those with influence and those with authority.
Historically, influence and authority went hand-in-hand. People with authority had better access to information. They were the informed public, and this, along with their position of power and privileged educational background, granted them influence. It was generally believed that the interests of these opinion-shapers were aligned with those of the broader population, and that anyone had the opportunity to work hard and climb the ladder and reach the top of the traditional pyramid of influence.
That was yesterday’s model.
Today, this classic pyramid of influence has been flipped upside down. People no longer rely on a few well-informed opinion shapers for news and information. When asked where they go for news and information, the more than 33,000 respondents of the 2016 Trust Barometer say they use search engines (71 percent), then TV (69 percent) and, close behind that, social media (67 percent). Two of the top three most-frequently used sources of news and information are now peer-driven media, where content is shaped by the search preferences of other users, or directly curated by friends or family.
People actively recommend companies and brands based on their levels of trust (59 percent), and, according to our Earned Brand research, they rely on the opinions of their peers when making decisions about brands (75 percent).
Peer voices today are more powerful than the opinion of traditional authority figures. Respondents say that they find “a person like yourself” as credible as an academic expert (64 percent), and far more credible than CEOs (49 percent), NGO representatives (48 percent), a Board of Directors (44 percent), let alone government officials (35 percent).
As a result, we have a new pyramid of influence, where the broader population has more influence than those with authority, creating a real challenge for those in positions of power and authority who need to find new ways of engaging and influencing opinions.
Making this new reality even more challenging are the growing levels of trust inequality revealed in this year’s Trust Barometer data. The 85 percent of respondents who are in the broader mass population have a trust score of just 48, while the 15 percent who qualify as the Informed Public — those with higher income levels, higher education, and higher usage of traditional media — have a much higher trust score of 60. This 12-point gap has increased by three points in the last five years, and the divide is even more significant in some of the world’s largest economies.
This inversion of influence — and the related gap between those in authority and those with influence — requires a new model of leadership to bridge the divide. The old “talk-at” approach no longer works.
Successful leadership means embracing this new, inverted pyramid of influence. It means behaving in ways that show your interests are aligned with those of society as a whole. It requires a sincere and authentic set of values, and a broad, inclusive approach to engaging with stakeholders.
Those leaders who adopt effectively will find that they have far a new and far more powerful level of influence than they had before.
Tonia Ries is the executive director of Edelman Square, Edelman’s intellectual property center.