New maps: What happens when we don’t trust?

When a country with low trust meets a global pandemic

Happy Thursday everyone,

Today, we’re looking at trust.  Or rather, the lack of it.

Trust is the foundation of our shared lives.  Yet, there is a huge – and growing – gap in trust within many countries around the world, including Canada.

Enjoy the read,


Imagine someone told you about a country. 

In this country, half the population doesn’t trust business or government to do the right thing.  And this has going on for a decade.

You might think that bad things are afoot.  That this can’t continue forever without some kind of reckoning, right?

And you might try to guess the identity of that country and the nature of that reckoning.  The United States and Donald Trump.  The UK and Brexit.

And you’d be right.

But you’d also be wrong, because it’s Canada (and many other countries), too.

We live in a country where half the population does not trust business, government, NGOs or the media to do the right thing.

In order to build better maps for the future, we must confront the harsh reality that the maps of the last two decades – however well intentioned – have led to a big gap in trust.

And without trust, nothing is possible.

Let’s take a deeper dive into this worrying situation.

The global firm Edelman has been reporting on trust for two decades.  Their annual Trust Barometer measures levels of trust across much of the world.

The results have been stark for quite some time.

They ask a very simple question: “do you trust this institution to do what is right?”

They ask it four times: for business, government, NGOs, and the media.

In 2019, only 53% of Canadians answered ‘yes’.

Half the country does not trust any of our institutions to do the right thing.

When it comes to trust, Canada is a divided country.

If you’re in the top 25% of earners you tend to trust institutions and feel optimistic in the future of the country.

If you’re in the remaining 75%, you are much less trusting.  You feel that the system is failing you, and you aren’t optimistic about the future.

It’s like there are two different countries within our country.  In the world, we rank second in this ‘trust gap’.

The results of this trust gap are stark:

Half the country agrees with this statement: “the system is failing me”.

Only one-third of Canadians feel that they will be better off in five years’ time.

Over half the country feels that both business and government are unethical.

How did this come to be?  Why did the maps of our last decade not do enough to build trust in business or government?

There are so many opinions on this topic.  They range from the automation and offshoring of jobs, to the increase in wealth inequality, and from government leaders not delivering on promises, to fake news.

But there’s a simpler answer to this question.  What are Canadians saying about how business and government can build trust?

Half of Canadians believe that capitalism does more harm than good.  91% of Canadians feel that businesses need to shift their priorities away from shareholders and towards employees, customers and communities.  These actions would build trust.

Over the last decade, have our business leaders met this challenge? 

Over half of Canadians see both government and business as unethical.  A large majority see government as incompetent.  More ethical leadership would build trust.  Greater competence would build trust.

Over the last decade, have these challenges been met?

How did we lose our way?

It’s easy to point to political leaders, bureaucratic leaders, and CEOs and say “they’re the problem”.

Powerful people do have a disproportionate impact on all of us.  But let’s not externalize this to PMs, Premiers and CEOs. 

We all have a role to play in building trust.

We all work in these institutions.  We make decisions day-in and day-out that shape their attitude and direction.

No one wakes up and asks: “how can I do untrustworthy things today?”

Yet if half the population doesn’t trust major institutions, then it can’t just be a handful of people who are causing the problem.  We all have to be contributing in some way, even if it’s small.

So perhaps the most important thing we can each do is reflect on this question: how has my organization built trust (or not) in the past few years?

The answer to this question isn’t just a thought experiment.  It’s vital to the future of our country.

Countries only work if there’s a general level of trust.  Countries only work if most people feel optimistic about their future.  And countries only work if there’s a sense of fairness – that we’re all in it together and all play by the same set of rules.

When enough people stop believing in these fundamental values we can end up in a very scary destination.

Our former Governor General, David Johnston, has written an entire book about trust.  He says: “Trust is the glue that holds our society together.  I think that glue is coming loose”.

We only need to look south of the border to see what happens to a country with even lower levels of trust than Canada.

Somehow, we must confront the fact that – despite all of us acting with the best of intentions – we haven’t done enough to build a trusting society.

The term ‘populism’ is used to describe the political chaos that ensues in countries with low levels of trust.

It’s not a great term.

People are engaging in their democracies by voting.  And they are voting based on how they feel.  Many feel alienated, like the system is working against them.  They don’t trust institutions like business, government or the media.  They feel let down.

Some leaders see this as a ‘political strategy’ and play into these feelings – while not actually caring much about the people behind them.

But other leaders share these feelings and want to represent people who feel let down.  They want to reform broken institutions and build new ones.

The message is clear.  Either build a society where trust is high, or eventually voters will pull down the institutions they feel are untrustworthy – with much collateral damage in the process.

The map we’ve been using to navigate this last decade has led to a country where half the population doesn’t trust business or government to do the right thing.

And most of us never really realized what was going on.  It’s not like anyone intentionally plans to be untrustworthy.

What happens to a country that’s lacking in trust when a global pandemic hits?

In Canada, trust increases.  Trust has shot up (from 53% to 63%) as COVID-19 has forced leaders to act swiftly, and in the best interest of all Canadians.

Yet, there are challenges on the horizon.  A large number of Canadians worry that COVID-19 will be politicized.  They see CEOs as lagging in their effectiveness.  And 60% of Canadians report that the pandemic has revealed serious inequality gaps in our country.

Almost three quarters of Canadians want the government to focus on saving lives instead of rapidly restarting the economy. Yet our government appears to be doing the opposite.

I believe that we can build a better map – to see us through the pandemic and guide our next decade.

If we have a trust deficit right now, then we need to start making trust investments.

It’s not enough for any organization to say “I’m trustworthy” and leave it at that.

A trust deficit means that half the population already doesn’t trust your organization or your sector.  Your bar is much higher, because you don’t have the benefit of the doubt.

We need to cast a critical eye on ourselves.  And we need to ask a different question: “where could people perceive us as untrustworthy?  What investments am I going to take to build trust proactively?”

Those aren’t easy questions to ask.

Yet, we see this in action today. 

We see our public health leaders stepping to the forefront and building trust by being open, honest and saying what they don’t know.

That’s what Canadians asked for: more ethical and competent leadership. 

And we see that when businesses pitch in to help – even when it hurts their bottom line.  Organizations have deferred loan payments, repurposed their manufacturing capacity for ventilators and hand sanitizer, and made many other contributions to the pandemic response.

And that’s what Canadians asked for: greater focus from business on customers, employees and communities.

This rise in trust due to COVID-19 has created a tremendous opportunity to hit the re-set button.  But there’s also a tremendous risk to do the opposite.

Trust has shot up because our institutions have been competent, ethical, and community-minded over these last eight weeks.

But we’re only in the first inning of a very long journey.

Yes, trust has shot up.  But just two months ago, our collective map was leading to a declining trust environment.

So what will happen?

Will this new map prove to be temporary, and ‘business as usual’ return?

Will another map be built, one that uses this bump in trust to further untrustworthy ends?

Or will we seize this new map, take this new-found trust and use it to guide our way?