Dave Samson / January 15, 2023
Over the past three years, four institutions – business, media, government and NGOs – have been profoundly tested as they responded to a world careening from crisis to crisis. Despite these challenges, the global business community refused to shrink back from leading through this time of uncertainty, establishing itself as an unshakable force, even in a world growing more polarized.
Some might have a hard time believing that today’s corporate leaders now stand as a stabilizing power in a fragile world. Still, the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer: Navigating a Polarized World presents compelling evidence that people expect the private sector to lead in these tumultuous times. This year’s results also raise an important question: Are the mounting expectations for business becoming unrealistic?
According to this year’s Trust findings, business remains the only trusted institution at 62 percent. And business is now the sole institution that respondents perceive as both ethical and competent following a three-year rise in its ethics score. In the last three years, business has responded to the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 and Russia’s attack on Ukraine – among other pressing issues.
At the outset of the pandemic, corporate leaders put self-interest aside, coming together to curb the pandemic’s impact on public health. Competitors within the health care industry teamed up to share their expertise and help speed the delivery of vaccines and personal protective equipment to stop the pandemic’s spread. Since the 2020 outbreak, business has experienced a 20-point rise in ethics, outpacing NGOs, as well as government and media, which lag far behind business in both competence and ethics.
Low trust in government and media has also aided the ascent of business. Respondents do not see the government or media as reliable sources of trustworthy information. Sixty-two percent do not believe their values match those of their government leaders, and there is an 12-point trust gap between business and government – with business more trusted in 22 of 27 countries surveyed.
Polarization Threatens All Institutions – Including Business
Twenty-one of the 28 countries surveyed are either moderately or severely polarized, threatening to weaken trust in all institutions – including business.
Globally, the contrast between those who view their own countries as “not very divided” and those considered “polarized” is stark. In those countries seen as not very divided, respondents trusted all institutions, besides media, while those who consider their country polarized saw trust crater in every institution.
What’s most troubling are the anticipated consequences of inaction to address divisiveness in each country. If societal divisions go unaddressed, respondents anticipate worsening prejudice and discrimination, slower economic growth, an inability to address societal issues and, most worrying, violence in the streets as consequences. Shockingly, people in 10 countries, including the U.S., said the most likely consequence of inaction is violence in the streets.
A Cautionary Tale for Business
Given the unsettled state of the world, can business remain a stabilizing force?
Even in these tumultuous times, the report found clear-cut consumer and employee expectations for business: As we saw in the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: The New Cascade of Influence, over six-in-10 people will buy or advocate for a brand that shares their beliefs and values, while the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust in the Workplace found that nearly seven-in-10 employees, on average, say that having societal impact is a strong determinant of whether they will accept or reject a job. And people still want more business engagement – not less – on addressing societal issues like climate change, economic inequality and workforce reskilling.
Business is currently the most trusted institution, but its position could be fleeting, especially in an unpredictable world where our institutions are being increasingly tested. Therefore, the private sector must act from its position of strength to respond to today’s volatile world and retain the stabilizing force it has become. Here’s how:
1 – Push back against polarization in pursuit of rational policies. It’s unrealistic for CEOs to not engage in public policy issues that affect their businesses. After all, business operates best in stable, functioning societies. If leaders want to achieve more rational public policy, they must engage and stand against political extremes. They should not try to assuage either side. The model of moderation, adherence to strategy, mindfulness of long-term trends – social, technological, economic, environmental – offer a powerful benefit to society.
2 – Work across institutions to forge pragmatic solutions. CEOs should use their convening power to bring NGOs, government leaders and others together to prompt rational dialogue and urge pragmatic solutions on issues like reskilling workers, combating climate change and addressing inequality. To effect meaningful change, all institutions must work collaboratively to find common ground and foster progress.
3 – Promote civil discourse by first engaging employees. CEOs should ignite a more balanced conversation, starting inside their own companies. Employees want to be heard, so involve them. Move beyond episodic employee surveys and create a continuous listening system to understand their sentiment on critical issues more fully. Make the workplace a safe place for employees to engage with leaders, and one another, to drive dialogue and better inform the company’s stance on societal issues.
4 – Distribute trustworthy information. Raise the integrity of your content by ensuring what you distribute is balanced, based on sound science and accurate facts. Business can also prevent the spread of disinformation by not using platforms that propagate misinformation and sow discord.
José Manuel Barroso, non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs International and 11th president of the European Union once said, “There is no stability without solidarity and no solidarity without stability.” He was implying that without engagement and communication, there is no stability and there is no stability without engagement and communication. The intent of the steps outlined above is to drive engagement and truthful communication – essential elements in combatting polarization and establishing lasting stability.
Dave Samson is Vice Chairman, Global Corporate Practice and U.S. Chief Operating Officer.