The annual Edelman Trust Barometer, published this morning, makes for hard reading. Not only does it demonstrate falling levels of trust in all major institutions (government, media, business and NGOs), but the credibility of CEOs is at an all-time low: falling a massive 12 points from last year.
Perhaps the result of this survey simply reflects the gap in expectation which we know already exists between big business and the average citizen. Many top executives feel that they are contributing to society by creating good products and services, providing jobs and delivering returns to their shareholders. Many citizens however, don't agree that these activities sufficiently 'serve society' and so feel exploited when they hear about corporations avoiding tax, levels of executive pay and business malpractices.
What is really worrying about this year's barometer results is the resounding lack of confidence in the system. Only 15% of people surveyed said they have faith in the current paradigm, whilst many expressed despair at the possibility of ever achieving change.
People need hope more than ever before. Unfortunately, the people who have the ability to restore that hope, are the leaders of the system which we no longer believe in. Therefore, no matter how hard it may be, we need these leaders to stand up and address our societal issues head on. We want them to have the courage to take the initiative, both individually and acting together with others, to re-set the implied contract between business and society. To make clear that citizens can expect a certain standard of behaviour and integrity from the corporate giants of this world, and that business acts for the good of society, rather than for the good of a privileged few.
Even if this sentiment does get expressed, it doesn't mean that trust will be restored overnight. Trustworthiness is granted to those who we respect and care for. Clearly neither of these can be said about our current institutions. In order for this relationship to be rebuilt, the Edelman survey points out a number of things organisations can do to demonstrate their trustworthiness: creating high quality products and services, having ethical practices, paying fair taxes, treating employees well and listening to customers. In other words, CEOs and organisations need to demonstrate that they genuinely care and respect people.
Therefore, in my mind it is clear, if businesses and CEOs are going to re-establish themselves as trustworthy, they must challenge the conventional focus of maximising profit for shareholders. Instead, they must focus on living out a purpose which serves society: an effort which will allow their care for employees, customers, suppliers, citizens and the environment to shine through. Not only would this be good for society, but it would be good for the economy too. Companies like Patagonia, Interface and Unilever have demonstrated that being purpose-driven not only earns you a reputation and respect from customers and competitors, but that it is also profitable, and can drive long term sustainable performance.
CEOs need to recognise that the only way to build trustworthiness is for everyone in business to respect the humanity of all. Because doing so, is part of the very reason that business exists.
Charles Wookey is the CEO of A Blueprint for Better Business - an independent charity which supports and challenges business to be a force for good.