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Business leaders aren’t trusted, and it’s time that changed

This column is part of Globe Careers' new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

Which do we trust more, Corporate Canada or government? The answer might surprise you. The Edelman Trust Barometer, our agency's annual study of trust around the world – reveals a historic, 11-point gap between trust in business and government. In short: Trust in business is up, and trust in government is down.

But hold on, business leaders: The results for leadership tell a different story.

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Only one-third of respondents trust CEOs. It gets worse. Just 9 per cent of respondents trust business leaders to tell the truth, while only 11 per cent trust business leaders to make ethical and moral decisions.

We have a lot of work to do, and that starts with making trust a priority.

But first, why does trust matter?

Trust is at the foundation of everything we do, whether personal or professional. If I trust you, I'm more inclined to like you, do business with you and engage with you, and vice-versa. When that trust isn't there, it has a dramatic impact on relationships. For business leaders, this directly influences your ability to drive your business agenda, motivate your employees, persuade your customers and increase your bottom line.

How can business leaders build trust?

You can't tell people they need to trust you. You must earn their trust by how you behave. Business leaders can build trust through two key attributes: engagement and integrity.

Ask yourself how you can engage your key stakeholders, including employees and customers. Listen to feedback. Treat your employees and customers well. Communicate frequently and honestly about the state of the business, whether it's positive or negative.

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To enhance integrity, you must become more transparent. Asked what CEOs can do to build trust, 90 per cent of Canadians chose "communicate clearly and transparently."

You should:

– Be open about business practices. If these aren't entirely ethical, you need to correct them or you simply will never be able to build trust;

– Take responsible actions to address an issue or crisis;

– Most important, always be front and centre during challenging times.

When to talk

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Building trust is a balancing act between knowing when to talk and when to let others talk for you. You need to set the vision, establish the tone and empower your stakeholders to carry the torch for the company.

When employees believe in your company's mission, they will be your most powerful ambassadors. Fifty per cent of Canadian respondents trust regular employees to deliver an objective message about a company, so empower them to tell your story.

Similarly, build trust with vocal consumers. They are your best spokespeople when addressing how your business contributes to the common good, not just the bottom line. This includes how your company operates within, and contributes to, its community.

CEOs should think of themselves as their company's "chief engagement officer," building trust by championing an inclusive and transparent culture, and ultimately mobilizing employees to become company ambassadors.

This role extends outside the workplace. Communicate with customers, political figures, your peers and the media. Build relationships during times of calm to ease the challenging ones.

CEOs must act as spokespeople during crises, and this relies on establishing trust beforehand. Leadership must always be visible during situations such as product recalls, lawsuits or location closings, and be open, honest, timely and present about the situation. You can only do this effectively if you have already built up trust internally.

Trust is the foundation of everything we do and it is an earned asset. It's time to rethink what it means to be a business leader, and lead the debate for change. That begins with trust.

John Clinton (@johnclinton122) is the CEO of public relations firm Edelman Canada (@EdelmanTO).

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