2 things all businesses should do to gain our trust

Cynthia Hansen
Head, Innovation Foundation, Adecco Group AG
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“You could invest a lot in trust but don’t necessarily see what you get out of it.” This is a common lament among business leaders. On one hand, the stakes seem higher than ever for companies to lose trust; on the other, business continues to struggle to re-gain and retain public trust in spite of having invested a great deal of time and resources.


Over the past two years of the Unlocking Trust in Business project at the World Economic Forum, I have had the rare opportunity to speak about trust with executives from a range of different industries, as well as leaders from civil society and government. We conducted five workshops with more than 120 participants across industries on the practices of trust. They see the need for greater trust, and no one has a silver bullet.

One thing is clear: trust-building is both highly complex and incredibly necessary to a company’s license to operate. It involves not only a company and its clients, but all the relationships up and down the value chain. While there is no magic solution, these discussions led me to two key factors to unlock the complexity of trust in business.

1. “Contextualize” – Trust building is intrinsically contextual. Solutions are never one-size-fit-for-all and often require trade-offs.

The landscape for trust-building is varied, fast-paced and growing in complexity. A variety of factors influence the trust landscape of a company, including industry climate, stakeholder interests, country of operation, recent world events, etc. As the world becomes more interconnected and companies more global, the dynamics of these factors are only growing more challenging.

Looking through the lens of industry as an example, the project found great variations from one industry to another. We identified 12 trust dimensions and asked participants to identify the most pressing ones for their industries. Some results were what one would expect. “Transparency” came out on top for the financial services industry. An executive from this industry said that companies currently “live a dilemma of wanting to be transparent and yet feeling too scared to be transparent,” not surprising in an industry struggling to rebound after the financial crisis. The energy industry identified “environmental stewardship” as its key trust factor, reflecting increased public and regulatory pressure in the wake of disasters such as the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. However, for the information technology industry, “public sector engagement” topped the list, which was a surprise. This was rooted in the growing need for business to work with government not only on regulation, but in the appropriate application of technology to serve and engage the public (e.g. e-government).

If you overlay a geographical lens, there can be variations even within a single company. Trust is interpreted differently according to cultural and historical context. For example, an executive from a global law firm said that the US part of the firm would rate the “quality of products and services” based on what her US clients tell her, and how they judge the firm. The same executive said that in the China part of the firm, the “relationship” dimension, built over a long period of time is perceived more valuable than the expertise itself.

Clearly, given the high degree of context specificity, there will be no universal solution. Satisfying one stakeholder will likely upset another. Meeting the regulatory standards of one country may cause issues in another. Long-term gains may mean sacrificing short-term growth. While there is no magic solution, what companies need is a set of questions to ask that will lead to mindful trade-off decisions. With whom do you want to build trust? What are their key concerns? How do they interpret trust and what do they expect from a trusting relationship? On what will they judge your company (actions, policies, media statements, products, etc.)? Based on the answers to these questions, think carefully about the concrete actions you and your company can take.

2. “Align” – Watch out for the disconnect between how trust is perceived and how trust is built.

There appears to be a disconnect between how trust is perceived and how it is built. When asked to describe trust, business executives often used emotion-laden words, such as honesty, integrity, security and vulnerability. However, when asked to identify the most critical factors to build trust, they often prioritized non-emotional factors, such as quality of products and services, accountability and transparency over more emotionally charged ones, such as remuneration, leadership and societal engagement.


Do people answer differently when wearing their public hats versus their business identities? According to the research during the project phase I, there is a fundamental disconnect between how business leaders generally view trust, versus how the public does. Business leaders tend to focus on transactional factors like products, delivery and customer service. The public perception of trust in business hinges on values and behaviour. We called this the “talking past” phenomenon because both parties are engaged in the conversation but are essentially not hearing each other.

Until companies are aware of this gap, and adjust their trust-building practices to address the real concerns of their stakeholders, building trust will be a slow and difficult process. To overcome the “talking past” phenomenon, companies need to meaningfully engage their stakeholders, understand their concerns, speak the same language, and find authentic ways to viscerally connect (read more about that in my previous post here).

Find out more through the World Economic Forum initiative Unlocking Trust: Better Understand Trust Building in Business

Author: Cynthia Hansen, Head of Product Strategy, Centre for the Global Agenda, World Economic Forum  

Image: A man walks past a corridor at a commercial building in Tokyo’s business district September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Yuya Shino

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