The most recent round of surveys that chart the downward spiral of Americans' trust in our institutions was released recently. In one (Gallup), only the military and small businesses have retained as much confidence as people have had in them historically. Schools, police, big business, banks, unions, churches and government have all fallen in our collective willingness to trust them. Congress has collapsed into a position of downright pitiful stature.
How to interpret this constructively, rather than just be depressed? Well, let's start with reflecting on the notion of trust. What makes an institution literally "worthy of trust"? The answer, at the core, is that if people or organizations meet our expectations over time, we conclude that they are "trustworthy." And once we've made that conclusion, we are even capable of overlooking periodic or momentary disappointments in performance.
Trust is not easy to establish, but once it is in place, we are loath to give up on the things we've anointed as trustworthy. This phenomenon explains the current struggle of so many to sort out their feelings about the trustworthiness of police departments, or the shock that has resulted from the collapse of roads or bridges in recent years (America took care of its infrastructure, we all trusted).
So what has happened to create such dramatic and widespread disappearance of trust in almost every institutional pillar in our culture? Simply put, too many institutions have stopped taking responsibility for setting realistic expectations. And in the dynamic, noisy and complex world in which we now live, that is a serious mistake for institutional leaders to make, if they care as much about long-term viability as they do about current popularity. Set expectations and meet them; set expectations and meet them — this has always been the recipe for establishing trust on personal levels and on public and societal levels, too. So why isn't that happening?
First, it is really hard work. It takes not only patience and tenacity, but also a strong supply of courage. Increasingly, high-profile organizations have not held their leadership accountable to do this hard work. How else to explain underwhelming business results that are rewarded with outsized executive bonuses, even as workers (and customers and small investors) feel increasingly marginalized?
And isn't this what has gone wrong too often in the disillusionment around public policy? Citizens are led by political rhetoric to believe that the solutions to public challenges are simple, ideological, inexpensive or all of the above — when, in truth, real solutions are rarely any of those things.
It also must be acknowledged that taking responsibility for setting expectations, and ensuring at least nominal acceptance of those expectations, is also pretty thankless work. Nobody wins awards or elections for clear-and-honest goal-setting. Prizes and celebrations come when a task is checked off the to-do list (even if the task was simplified to ensure completion); in the public context, the news cameras roll when a bill gets signed (even if it is a watered-down version of a public aspiration, barely recognizable as a descendant of an earlier commitment or promise). So our institutions have slid into the practice of giving leaders extraordinary latitude for responsible expectation-setting. Including, importantly, in the role that institutional journalism used to play, spotlighting both honest expectations and performance — that potent "check and balance" is largely absent today. And as a result, trust is lost.
Beyond showing up in a survey, it is evident in demand for regulation (we want someone to monitor what we don't trust). We can measure lost trust in other ways, too. For businesses, it is longer sales cycles, employee turnover, litigation. For citizens, it is lower turnout for elections and isolation from the sense of shared fate that built our society.
Rebuilding trust in our institutions will take both courageous leaders and thoughtful citizens. We need to support and elect people who tell us the truth about our challenges. We need to demand honest expectation-setting from those who lead the organizations in our communities — and then both support and celebrate them when expectations are met. And hold them accountable when expectations are not met. Leaders who set this example need to be held up as role models every chance we get.
Kathryn Tunheim is principal of the Minneapolis-based consulting firm TUNHEIM and president emeritus of IPREX, one of the world's largest networks of communications firms.