I’ll borrow from my dissertation here: “Reputation is a capital asset…A reputation for honesty, or trustworthiness, is usually acquired gradually… [but] can generally be destroyed very quickly” (Dasgupta 1988: 62). The fragile qualities of trust are based on it being, as Gambetta says, “a peculiar belief” (1988: 234) predicated on the lack of contrary evidence. A single egregious data point has the potential to damage irrevocably the larger pattern. The main exception to this is the competence dimension of trust, in regards to which, as mentioned previously, positive information is weighed more heavily than negative (Kam 2009).
Understanding the nature of trust is key to developing a strategy to recover from a deficit. Trust is about information. Information, once known, never goes away. It can be re-interpreted, it can be drowned out by new information, but it never goes away.
So if you’re a firm suffering from a trust deficit, how do you recover?
If trust is about information, then recovery is about the quantity and quality of information – getting the largest quantity and most convincing quality of consistently positive information out there.
However, there are limits to quantity – quantity must fundamentally be diverse for each person. Said differently, saying the same thing multiple times to the same person doesn’t significantly increase the quantity of information being introduced. The only new information being introduced when you do that is the metadata about your level of motivation. And at some point, saying the same thing over and over becomes disingenuous, quantity at this point competing with the convincing quality of the information.
Quality is about credibility. Credibility is about real change – the most reliable way to be thought trustworthy is to be trustworthy over an extended period of time.
Unfortunately, the standard process for recovery is slow because it takes time for enough diverse and credible information to trickle into the system. You can’t just slam every channel with PR messaging. There are things you can do to accelerate the process though.
Be trustworthy all the time
This seems like an obvious thing but untrustworthy firms who want to be trusted tend to behave in a trustworthy way only when they are in view. Firms who care but which have a laissez-faire attitude towards trust tend to bring it into focus only on big decisions. Being trustworthy all the time and even on small things is critical. If you don’t do this, then all the other advice is moot. Information gets out.
Be so transparent that it scares you. It’s important that it scares you – it means that you’re pushing yourself to change, it sends a credible signal to the audience, and it maximizes the quantity of information. Force yourself to default to opening up everything unless you have a good reason why. Bring every decision into the open.
Increase the diversity of information
Radical transparency helps because it enables not just a wide pipe but also an implicitly diverse flow of information. Because it is not controlled, it must be diverse. Think about other ways to increase the diversity of information. How about operations in other countries? How about media access at all levels of your organization? How about opening up HR and incentive policies? How about a video platform for personal, unmediated stories by employees and customers? A no-censorship policy? Declaring that “controlling the message” has been thrown out the window? Scary.
Tell a more accurate story
A pattern of actions congeals into identity. In the eyes of an external audience, you have not just made mistakes; you are now “an untrustworthy firm.” This is the story they hold in their heads. Recovery means reshaping and extending that story in a way that helps the audience assess probable future outcomes and emerge with positive expectations.
I hesitate to include this, as firms without trustworthiness built into their DNA may use this disingenuously as an excuse to rationalize “spin.” The key here is supporting a more true understanding of what happened. This requires an intensive deep-dive into why the failure happened – you have to understand it yourself first before you can tell the story. There are no shortcuts here. The story must match the underlying pattern of the data. And how you tell the story is part of the story itself – it is the metadata of trustworthiness. Are you laying yourself bare? Are you exposing the postmortem in the most public way possible, shining a light into the less savory aspects of your organizational workings? Are you sharing closely held data that is relevant to the postmortem? Are you using clear, incisive language? Again, scary. But life is risk, and the kind you avoid in the short run through obfuscation is trivial compared to the kind you create by doing so. In other words, you can’t lie your way out of a trust deficit. You have to go all in.
The story must include a credible sincere apology: something happened, something went wrong, and a trustworthy entity always takes on the bulk of the responsibility – even if other parties were at fault as well. Pointing fingers indicates lack of accountability for the original failure, and destroys credibility. And finally, the story must end with a focused, concrete way forward – what will be different in the future and what are the near-term steps to get there.
Make a commitment
The defining quality of a commitment is irretrievability. You can’t go back. If you can go back, it’s not a real commitment. That irretrievability is the source of credibility. There are different levels of commitment though – just like you can commit a dollar or you can commit your life savings. In the world of trust, you can spend social capital as well as financial capital. Examples of commitment: saying it out loud, saying it to an external audience, writing it down and signing it, publishing what you’ve written, and of course, making a dollar investment. The most classic form of dollar commitment is the example of the engagement ring – if you break off an engagement, etiquette says the woman gets to keep the ring. Irretrievable commitment. Push your firm to make the largest commitment possible.
Enact your strategy fast
It’s like medicine. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A pound of cure now is worth ten pounds of cure later. If you’re going to do it at all, do it fast.