Never before in the history of our country has this occurred.

“We have lost faith and trust in virtually every institution simultaneously,” says Matthew Dowd, ABC Political Analyst. 

Corporations used to be perceived to be paternalistic. Now, they are viewed as greedy, only interested in the bottom line.  Recent scandals at Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, and Mylan (EpiPen price gouging) fuel such beliefs.  The Edelman Trust Barometer reports that 82% of employees mistrust their bosses and 65% would prefer a better boss than a raise.

Mass media trust levels have fallen to a pathetic 9%.  Whereas decades ago journalistic values resulted in objective reporting, trusted by audiences of varied political persuasions, media today are perceived to have agendas and attract audiences seeking confirmation of their personal biases rather than the truth.

Religious organizations are not exempt from the mistrust epidemic.  Catholic priest sexual abuse and cover-up, televangelist scandals, and prosperity gospel charlatans feed the decay of trust in what should be the most trusted of institutions.

Government institutions and political parties are the current focus of mistrust following the most contentious election in US history.  Dowd shared that “the government 11% favorable rating ranked just above bubonic plague but slightly below lice.” For the first time in our history, both candidates and both political parties were mistrusted by a majority of Americans and our newly-elected president was the first ever to enter office with a negative approval rating.

How did we get here and what can we do?

Like any cultural issue, it is very complex and there are no simple solutions. Nevertheless, there are several observations that contribute to this condition and worthy of consideration.

Truth.  Over the past several decades, our culture has migrated away from the concept of absolute truth to one of relative truth. That is, the vast majority of people today believe in subjective self-determination of what is true.  All people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. In a world without objective truth, however, there is no way to prove what is right or wrong, nor a way to find objective compromise. When political correctness forces “tolerance” to replace truth, “it is not long before we tolerate only those with whom we agree,” says Dr. Jim Denison. Trust cannot exist, much less grow, in such an environment. 

Tribal Divisions.  The great American Experiment of democracy has failed in virtually every other nation who has attempted to duplicate our form of government.  Why?  “Because tribes don’t honor other tribes, and democracy demands the approach of country over tribe for the common good,” explains Dowd.  So how did we get so tribal?  Again, it is complex, but technological advances in the past 25 years have not provided the solution.  Bill Gates once felt that getting the right information to the right people at the right time was the key.  Perhaps, but the key word there is RIGHT. The Internet has allowed access to more information, but as Dowd says, “We are drowning in data, but thirsting for knowledge and wisdom.”  Fake news and misinformation have contributed to “confirmation bias” where we seek information that makes us feel good and avoid that which makes us uncomfortable.  This contributes to our polarization and a culture where former competitors are now viewed as enemies, and the end justifies the means.  Win at ANY cost.

So what can we do? Can trust in American culture be resurrected from the grave?  There is certainly hope if we each take responsibility and do our part. America loves an underdog and a great comeback. Look at the Chicago Cubs.

In our next blog, we will describe a game plan to instill a culture of trust, with direct benefits to the performance and engagement of organizations.

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