Rebuilding a wall of trust

As we collectively face up to some of the challenges around the future of work, digitisation and globalisation the question and availability of trust becomes ever more important.  For society to collectively realise the opportunities on offer we have to be able to operate in an environment that is built around one of the most basic human values – trust.   It is the only way to navigate the unchartered territories that the world is moving into.

With that in mind the recent publication of the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer provides an alarming insight into the recent erosion of trust in society and is a call to action.  The analysis acts as a lens to understand why events like Brexit and the election of Trump happened and importantly what we can all do about it.

Trust is breaking down

The survey, collecting data from 28 countries with over 33,000 respondents, concludes that we are approaching a period where there is a ‘crisis in trust.’  There is a lack of trust across all major institutions in government, media and corporate organisations.   Leaders are singled out as having lost trust (with only 37% CEOs and 29% government officials viewed as very/extremely credible).    Worryingly there is an increasing gap in the breakdown of trust between the informed and mass public.

This is contributing to a predominant feeling that the system is failing and is being replaced with a culture where fear wins out.    Interestingly the findings report on the creation of an ‘echo chamber effect’.   This is caused by people seeking to only follow information sources that reinforce their own personal beliefs at the expense of shutting out the views of others (53% respondents do not regularly listen to opposing views).

Without trust where do we go?

Trust is one of the fundamental pillars of any relationship.  If you can’t trust someone where do you go from there?   The psychologist Amy Cuddy in her recent book Presence highlights the necessity of trust.    Her research indicates that there are two questions people answer when they meet someone new – can they trust you and can they respect you.    Trust is fundamental to any human relationship and without it we’re in trouble.

The findings highlight the need for us all collectively to work on building and establishing trust at all levels of society.  It’s easy to say this is down to a small elite group of ‘leaders’ to fix.   Ultimately the barometer shows that across the entire spectrum people are trusting people less whether this is at work, home or in local communities.   We all need to do something about it.

Rebuilding trust

This is a wake-up call and all institutions need to reflect on what they can do to re-establish trust with their customers and their people.   The question of trust needs to be at the forefront of their agendas

Paul Zak’s recent research provides some practical insight into what organisations can do to increase trust.   His research has shown when people trust others there is an increase of the chemical oxytocin in the brain.    Importantly this chemical can be stimulated in organisations through the reinforcement eight specific behaviours.   The behaviours cover areas like recognising excellence, providing autonomy, focusing on personal relationships, showing vulnerability, sharing information and facilitating personal growth.

But you could just simply summarise it to be “treat people the way you want to be treated.”   Reach out, collaborate and work with others and make this a priority.

The other area organisations and institutions need to face into is the learning and education agenda.   60% of the respondents in the Trust Barometer report a fear of losing their job through lack of skills and training.   Against the backdrop of automation, digitisation and globalisation this is hardly surprising.

Our educational and learning systems need to step up to the challenge.    There needs to be a fundamental rethink in how we promote life-long learning for all to help reduce fear and inequality.    We can’t simply keep putting people through schooling at the start of their careers and wait for retirement   It won’t work in a world where we are likely to have over 10 career changes.

The recent learning survey in the Economist provides some excellent insight into how to do this.   Ultimately we need to support people with both the personal and technical skills to be able to create new careers throughout their life-time.

But ultimately we all have a part to play

It would be easy to conclude that the whole issue or rebuilding trust is down to leaders to address.   This is simply passing the buck and we all have a part to play in rebuilding and establishing trust.

The echo chamber is a case in point.  We think that with technology we collaborate and learn more.    But in reality it can just become a vocal reinforcement of our own beliefs.   We build our own digital walls to help reinforce our own positions whilst failing to empathise or listen to other people’s views or opinions.     We all need to get out more, embrace diversity and individual differences and seek to see things from another perspective.

Looking ahead

Whilst the barometer makes for some pretty bleak findings there is hope provided we take the right action.   Ultimately we all have a part to play in rebuilding trust and that is a wall worth building.

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Lessons from stand-up


I’ve always had a great respect for stand-up comedians.  It’s the ability to go out and make an audience laugh in a challenging environment where all you have is yourself and the microphone.   It’s that admiration that has always made me want to try it out but never had the courage to do until now.

So after recently leaving my job I had run out of excuses and it was time to confront my demons.   For the last six weeks I’ve been going to the Comedy School in Camden and this culminated on Sunday night when I did my first routine with 11 other comedians.   It was an incredible experience and something I never thought I could or would do.   I learnt so much in the process.   Here are some thoughts.

Keeping it real 

When you look at comedians it’s their ability to laugh at themselves and be themselves that makes people laugh.   Ultimately you have to be able to look at all your quirks and traits and have a good laugh at it.  I learnt it was humbling, empowering and amusing to laugh at yourself.   We all need to do more of it.  On stage, as in life, it’s easy to fall into the trap of being someone else.   Ultimately you have to be authentic and comfortable being yourself.   That was the true test.

The beauty of diversity

The twelve comedians who did the course were from a range of different backgrounds ranging from students through to grandparents all with a variety of life experiences that came together.   I realised that recently in the past few years it is easy to live your life in a bubble with closed circles of experiences and friends, reinforced in the echo chamber of social media.  The beauty of comedy was it has helped broaden my horizons and learn from others with a variety of experiences and new ideas.   I’ve met some of the most incredible people and friends doing this.   It’s been a privilege.    We need more diversity and inclusion in the world.

The art of conversation

One of the areas I struggled most was how to have a ‘conversation’ with the audience.   I simply found standing up in front of people and remembering my content hard enough – let alone trying to interact with them and make them laugh.   But there is an art (which I am still learning) in how you engage and interact with your audience.  You have to manage what I think are two diametrically opposites: a highly structured script and be present with your audience to be able to improvise and connect with them in an incredibly short space of time (we were doing five minute routines).    It requires thorough preparation and then you have to be present to improvise in the moment with the audience.

Content is everywhere and limitless

I found the process of building my own routine challenging but in a masochistic way extremely therapeutic and rewarding.   It was about pausing and looking at the obvious things in life and seeing the humour in it.  The support I got from my fellow comedians in developing my content was so important and I think makes it stand out as a profession.    Unlike many other industries I experienced real collaboration with a prevailing belief that there is no limit on content.  The funnies are limitless you just have to find them.  It’s about testing it with different people and continuously refining it.   Often each week I’d be frustrated that a script I’d spent hours on hadn’t worked but amused that it was an off the cuff remark, in the moment, that had worked.    It’s a process that requires constant testing and iterating.  You have to listen and adapt.

The world needs more laughter

2016 has been a pretty crazy year in so many ways.   It’s in that context that I think you have to find humour in everything we do.   Often it’s easy to take life too seriously – I do it all the time.    The beauty of the course was to get a different perspective on life and laugh at it.   Against the backdrop of some of the political, economic and social challenges we are all fronting up to it is so important to find laughter and fun in what we do.    The world needs more laughter and perspective.

Now is the time

Shamefully it was 14 years ago when I first thought that I would like to try stand-up.   For a variety of reasons (mostly driven by internal limiting beliefs and not prioritising it amongst the everyday noise) it’s taken this long for me to bite the bullet and just do it.   Life is too short.  You have to do things now.    It’s been an important wake up call.  The fear thing was a funny one (no pun intended).   Often in life you come up with a thousand reasons not to do something and never do it.   You have to shut out that voice in your head and do it.    I remember vividly waiting to go out on the stage.   My heart racing, palms sweating, I started to think of all the things that could go wrong and why was I doing it.   Then I remembered this is what living is all about – taking on the hardest challenges and shutting out that inner voice.    I remember when I came out on stage in front of the bright lights it just felt normal and with that my fears were kicked into touch.     You have to shut out your doubts and simply do it.

As I said to someone when I started the course I am not sure where this will take me.   But what I’ve learnt up to know has been incredible.   It’s been worth it just for that.    I still have so much to learn in the world of stand-up so I don’t want to hang up the mic just yet.    Not bad for six Thursday evenings in Camden.   I have to say a huge thank you to the great work Keith and the team at the Comedy School does and all the other people that helped me along the way.   Without them I would not have got this far.

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The greatest risk is doing nothing

A couple of weeks ago I caught up with an old colleague and I was reminded about the cost of indecision.   When faced with difficult decisions often the riskiest (and costliest) course of action is simply doing nothing.

During uncertain times, indecision seems to permeate across organisations like a heavy dark cloud.    Under stress it is not necessary about whether there is a ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ mentality but one where a mood of procrastination is the prevailing wind.    When evaluating which options to pursue there can be a tendency to ask for endless detail and diligence.   This is often the cue for furious action to evaluate costs and benefits of what to do and yet more delays.   Decisions get deferred, investment delayed and resources left frantically spinning in circles.

When experiencing delays like this you should always bear in mind the cost and impact of simply doing nothing.   Complex issues and problems tend to create an environment of analysis paralysis.    Failure to decide and take action is often more corrosive than not doing anything at all.

As we navigate through uncertain terms both politically, economically and socially we could all do well to remind us of the importance of being bold.    One of the key leadership capabilities needs to be the ability of taking bold, courageous decisions.  Richard Branson sums it up nicely with this quote: “It is only by being bold that you get anywhere.”    To build on Branson’s point, failure to take the bold decision can leave you paralysed and in the end lose out more than taking a perceived ‘riskier’ change.  Being bold, making decisions, moving forward keeps organisations and people on the move.

Whilst advocating making decisions for the sake of it is wrong.   You always need to think and act methodically, rationally and applying sound evaluation.   Being ‘bold’ should not get in the way of doing sound due diligence and analysis.    But when faced with a decision to make it is always worth remembering the cost of doing nothing and that often an make the fear of the unknown more palatable.


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Shifting from the inside to the outside


At the recent HRD Business Summit in Birmingham I was fortunate enough to hear Dave Ulrich’s keynote speech.    He outlined the paradigm shift HR needs to make from having an ‘internal mindset’ to focus on the external business and this idea is well documented in his book HR From the Outside In.   In this brave new world the emphasis is on understanding business performance, the external customer and enable HR to play a direct role in delivering growth and the strengthening the bottom line.

In many respects this is not a radical approach and on the face of it entirely sensible and logical.   Put simply, what HR professional today would claim that they don’t operate without understanding the business context or customer?    Few would own up to that.  But as in so many aspects of life actions speak louder than words.   What was enlightening was when Dave Ulrich got the 1,000 person audience (a decent sample of HR leaders) to participate in the discussion.   It was startling to see how few leaders had objectives that will directly influence business outcomes (e.g. revenue or launch of new products).    I suspect this is mirrored across the industry.   For example, how many HR professionals think about an employee first when asked about how they support customers?   As an industry we need to look at ourselves in the mirror.   It is far harder for the industry to act in this way than we think (otherwise we would have cracked this years ago).

Whilst I believe this approach will ultimately require significant change in the industry and different capabilities it isn’t necessarily that difficult to do.  It simply requires taking small steps and a commitment to change mindset and behaviour.   For example, if you are launching values across your business I’m sure you would have involved employees in developing this.   But have you asked your end customers?    Have you asked them what sort of values they would want someone to behave in when they are interacting with them?   When you are building your goals for this year and business cases how many direct business outcomes are you committing to influencing (indirect does not count!).  If you get it then are you continually reinforcing and challenging your colleagues to do this in the same way?  With a commitment to change and courage it can happen.

In terms of context as well now is the time for HR to make this change.   The timing is perfect.   The current combination of demographic, technological and sociological changes represent a pivotal time for business.   There is no better time for HR to take the lead and play a lead role in enabling businesses to take full advantage of this.    The rewards are great as well, as this recent blog in HBR highlights the skills of a Chief HR Officer are closely aligned to those of a CEO.    It’s warmer on the outside than you think.

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