In the face of heightened expectations on CEOs to step into the trust vacuum left by government, pressure is on them to do more — and quickly — to invoke a sense of certainty, reassurance and confidence with employees as well as the general public.
While needing to continue to project an image of calm, collected and certain leadership, particularly ahead of a potential economic downturn, CEOs must clearly also consider the significantly heightened expectations on them to be advocates for change in a world that is still confused and uncertain.
In last year’s Edelman Trust Barometer, we noted that expectations on CEOs to speak up and lead change was up to a record high of 65 percent. Our advice was similar: take advantage of the moment to project leadership and maximize the business benefits of doing so. A few CEOs did seem to take up this call to action, from Paul Polman’s push to organize the business response to climate change, to Satya Nadella’s support for DREAMers and stand against family separations — but not enough. This year, the call to action appears to be yet more urgent—a rise by 11 points in the public’s expectation that CEOs will speak up and lead change. Today, some 76 percent of respondents believe CEOs need to step up.
And stepping up proactively is required. Importantly, our data shows that whereas there is a trust “advantage” of some 19 points for “my employer” (75 percent) versus business in general (56 percent), the same trust advantage is only seven points when comparing the credibility of “my CEO” (54 percent) versus CEOs in general (47 percent). In other words, employee trust in employers should not be assumed to be an endorsement of the CEO.
What do CEOs need to do to build trust? There are clues in the data. The first is to recognize that while hope is placed in employers to get it right, people are generally unhappy. Pessimism is pervasive; most people in the developed world do not believe they will be better off in five years.
Second, it’s key to note that employees and prospective employees want CEOs to act beyond reproach when it comes to speaking the truth. Candor, honesty and transparency are all powerful trust- building elements, together with high expectations (74 percent) that CEOs will embody the values and mission of the organization they lead.
There continues to be much uncertainty in the world, and while trust levels have generally seen a recovery, it is distributed unequally between the informed public and mass population groups we surveyed. There are heightened expectations on CEOs as a result, but generally they are not stepping up to the challenge. This is a miss. Not only from a perspective of trust overall, but in terms of the business benefits that accrue to employers who are regarded as treating their employees well in an age of fragmentation and inequality.
Stephen Kehoe is the global chair, Reputation.