'Trust' Can Mean Different Things To Different People

Business executives, employees and consumers have different definitions of “trust.” When PricewaterhouseCoopers’ “The Complexity of Trust,” its trust in U.S. business survey, asked these groups to define trust in business, business leaders say trust is made up of many different elements, including sustainable value chain management, responsible artificial intelligence, and transparency in environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting, while consumers disagree, and prioritize fewer areas—including holding leadership accountable.

Where the three groups’ definitions of trust did align, they did so on data protection and cybersecurity, treating employees well, ethical business practices and admitting mistakes.

When asked in the survey what drives trust, consumers’ top choices were accountability, clear communications and admitting mistakes. Data protection—which consumers chose as the No. 1 area defining trust—came in sixth, which PwC points to as demonstrating that trust in theory and trust in practice are not the same.

When it comes to who owns trust, PwC found that more than half of the business leaders in its survey said that most senior leaders at a company were responsible for trust. But even so, two roles led the pack: 73 percent of respondents cited the CEO as either responsible or accountable for trust, and 65 percent said the same for the CFO. It notes that having more roles owning trust can be an advantage because it embeds a trust mindset throughout senior management, and in turn, the entire organization. This can also present a challenge however—having multiple roles in charge of trust in lieu of one centralized owner can also reduce accountability and focus.

“The disconnects in the definition of trust and who owns it presents an opportunity for businesses to better describe how their many priorities collectively build and sustain trust, and how they plan to hold themselves accountable to the commitments they make in the name of trust-building,” says Tim Ryan, PwC's U.S. chair and senior partner. “For business leaders, it is more important than ever to continue to actively listen to their key stakeholders, surround themselves with differing perspectives to keep them up to date on critical topics and continue to act on what they say they’re going to do.”

The survey found that despite challenges, businesses which back words with action are most successful in building trust. Business leaders cite varying stakeholder expectations as the top challenge (43 percent) in building company trust, with the second top challenge being the business’s own company culture (41 percent). This is where leaders are predominantly spending their time, with the overwhelming majority of employers (75 percent) saying they are focused on their employees to build trust in their company.

However, the organizations most successful at building trust are the ones who prioritize and understand the expectations of all of their stakeholders and who back their words with action. As an example given by PwC, over the last year and a half, energy, utilities and mining, as well as consumer markets companies—including essential businesses like retail, hospitality and leisure, transportation and logistics—built the most trust, with 80 percent of consumers saying their trust in those companies stayed the same or grew during the pandemic, followed by industrial products (79 percent) and health care (77 percent).

Business leaders ranked clear communications as the most important priority (72 percent) in building trust with stakeholders, including consumers and employees, but only 64 percent of business leaders have implemented these efforts. Yet consumers’ top trust driver is accountability, whereas only 56 percent of business leaders deem it “extremely important,” and only 46 percent say that their companies have implemented it. And when it comes to ESG, 45 percent of business leaders have implemented transparent ESG reporting—but only 19 percent of consumers list it as a top-5 driver of trust.

PwC’s survey also found that employees’ trust in their employer does not necessarily translate into loyalty. According to the survey, 80 percent of employees report trusting their company the same or more now than before the pandemic. Employees cited the highest levels of trust in their direct managers, co-workers and companies (77 percent) compared to only 67 percent for their company’s board and 59 percent for other companies in their industry. Considering 88 percent of employers saying they are experiencing higher turnover than normal, however, employee trust in their employers does not necessarily translate into loyalty.

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