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CEO trust is in the toilet

CEO trust

I’m probably of two minds on the CEO trust issue, and I suppose a lot of people would be too.

On the one hand: I think we all semi-logically know that when a person starts making absurd amounts of money, some concepts like “empathy” and “taking care of others” might go out the window. CEOs tend to protect the business (“I built this brand! I have sweat equity!”) and not necessarily the people. In this context, CEO trust is obviously going to be piss poor.

Other hand: especially in America, we love us some conventional markers of success. Workaholics? Deify ’em. High achievers? Yes please. Business drives some countries. CEOs are the highest-ranking people in those business. We should be able to trust them, right? Viewed this way, CEO trust is almost essential to the fabric of society.

That might have been a bit much, because CEO trust seems to be in the crapper — and globally to boot!

New-ish research on CEO trust

This is a report from Edelman, here summarized on Forbes. Let’s start with a visual, shall we?

CEO trust chart

Good on India, eh? Nice. Now here’s a paragraph:

Only 37 percent of people in 28 countries rate CEOs as being extremely or very credible in 2017, down 12 percentage points from the previous year. Credibility levels are especially low in Japan where only 18 percent of those polled consider CEOs trustworthy. In Germany, trust is a dismal 28 percent while in Russia, it declined from 49 percent to 34 percent over the past two years.

Alright. What now?

Are these CEO trust numbers surprising?

Not really. If you believe the world is increasingly being divided into “haves” and “have-nots,” which is probably true, then it would be pretty logical that CEO trust would be declining. To some people who can’t keep up or compete anymore, CEOs and their fancy lifestyles are the entire problem. Plus: trust in the overall workplace globally has been declining for years. And finally: global numbers around respect in the workplace — respect is a concept closely linked to trust — are also declining. Add all this together and the CEO trust numbers dropping are not too surprising, no.

Can we fix these numbers?

Well, we’d need better leadership. Don’t hold your breath on that happening anytime soon. CEOs are stewards of the brand and the revenue streams. Phrased a slightly different way: their bonus is not contingent on people trusting them. In fact, in some cases they can land a fatter bonus by being untrustworthy. So this isn’t going to change writ large, no. If anything, it will probably decline more in the next five years.

What would be important is this: the shifting of CEO responsibilities. We’ve been talking about this for years, and based on most studies I ever come across, nothing has really changed. We live in a VUCA world now, though, and that requires a different type of leadership. You can still rush from meeting to meeting yelling at everyone to “show you the numbers,” and that’s fine. CEO trust can (and will!) still decline. But as digital and mobile continue to get to full-world scale, you should be molding your culture to experiment, iterate, and leave the old asset-based ideas behind. I’m not really sure that part is happening, and that plays into these CEO trust numbers.

CEO trust and the “left behind” issue

VUCA above means volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Admittedly a lot of work is easier than we make it out to be, but the whole landscape of work right now is terrifying. A lot of companies are using new tech + layoffs as a cost-cutting measure, and people lack the proper training to get in at their old salary level. A lot of people (especially middle-aged guys) are just exiting the workforce entirely. In short, they’re left behind.

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Now consider CEOs. They make a ton of money. While their jobs could be automated, they won’t for a while — because they’re the ones deciding who gets automated. They probably have a nice house; your house might be under water mortgage-wise. Their wife might seem attractive or the “I don’t know how she does it!” envy of the ritzy neighborhood. Your wife is annoying and hasn’t spoken to you in three weeks. They come to work and have 19 secretaries and yes-men. You come to work and are drowning in KPIs and spreadsheets.

You’ve been left behind. They’re crushing it. Some envy there, and envy erodes trust. CEO trust declines — oh yes, and Donald Trump becomes President of the U.S. So that’s been a fun little ride!

What else might you add on CEO trust?

Ted Bauer

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