How Institutions Can Regain Public Trust

Rebuilding trust starts with conversations and courage, says Professor Sim Sitkin

April 25, 2022
Behavioral Science, Leadership

The erosion of trust has weakened our institutions, said Sim Sitkin, the Michael W. Krzyzewski University Distinguished Professor in Leadership at the Fuqua School of Business. Sitkin is also the Faculty Director of Fuqua’s Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics (COLE).

We are seeing fewer individuals around the world who are willing to put their faith in key societal institutions, Sitkin said. Most recently with the pandemic, science, health care, government, and educational institutions have all suffered from a lack of public trust.

In a live discussion on Fuqua’s LinkedIn page, Sitkin highlighted research that suggests how trust can be regained.

“One of the things that comes up again and again in our research is, ‘Do I believe that you truly understand me and what I care about, what my situation is, what I need, what my priorities are?’” Sitkin said. “And ‘Do you respect me, even with knowing my weaknesses and my limitations?’ And ‘Do I believe that you truly care about my welfare and my ability to pursue my own goals?’”

Sitkin said a key problem has been what he calls “perceived value incongruence.” This refers to the perception that two people don’t just disagree on a specific course of action, but more fundamentally have different values. With value incongruence, each side is more likely to completely write off the other.

A second issue, Sitkin said, is what is referred to as "the avoidance of interaction." An example, he said, would be ending all interactions with a second party. If they send you a message, you don’t respond or even read it.  By failing to engage, negative perceptions persist and may get reinforced, with little opportunity for any corrective actions that could restore trust.

Sitkin said courage is needed to counteract the dynamic of people shutting each other out, because reversing distrust involves a willingness to undertake the risk involved in trusting. He explained, “Because trust – by definition – requires a willingness to be vulnerable to another person or an institution, the decision to trust can involve courage even in everyday organizational or social situations: for a leader to reveal their weaknesses, for a subordinate to tell their leader that they think they're wrong, or to say, ‘When everybody on my team thinks we should do one thing, I think it's the wrong strategy.’ Sharing bad news with people, giving people tough feedback, all of that requires courage.”

Sitkin’s research has found that people underestimate their ability to be courageous because they fail to fully recognize their everyday courageous acts.

“One example of where courage can be important in organizations is when we need to be able to step up and choose to pursue a stretch goal, which is defined as a seemingly impossible goal under current conditions,” Sitkin said. “What our research has shown is what we call the paradox of stretch goals – namely, that the organizations and individuals who are in the best position to pursue stretch goals tend to be very conservative and risk averse, and don't pursue them, while those in weak positions pursue stretch goals when they shouldn’t.”

Sitkin said "The Great Resignation" relates to trust and the courage needed to rebuild it. He said employers have an opportunity to show care for employees, understand their situation, respect for their work and express that they will be treated fairly.

Sitkin said employers should have transparent and open conversations with their workers – along the following lines. “Let me explain what I think you need, what I think you're trying to achieve, and how I think the organization can help. Now you tell me if I got that right and help me correct what I got wrong, since I am trying to be supportive but can only do that if I truly understand,” Sitkin explained.

“This can help to begin to build the bridges that enable trust to grow."

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