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Lesson from the plagues – trust

TRUST:  a person’s belief that another person or institution will act consistently with their expectations of positive behaviour. OECD 2017

In a post last week, we spoke to the opportunity of the pandemic to re-assess the tension we hold between the individual and collective identity. In this piece, the focus is on investing in an essential ingredient to achieve that shift together.


“Unprecedented” has become almost as overused as “pivot” during 2020. But not without reason.

The restrictions in Victoria resemble a war footing. They include

  • Curfews
  • Restrictions on movement
  • Restrictions on gathering
  • Restrictions on touch.

The Government and its health experts are requiring Victorians to make considerable changes in behaviour. Among the most difficult are those that limit common ways to give and receive comfort in crisis. Family and friends have reported unfamiliar feelings in response to the sense of being caged and isolated. The full range of ‘negative’ human emotions are on show – grief, anger, confusion, sadness, fear.

Which brings us to trust, and its central role in defining our response. 

The OECD published a detailed report in 2017 as part of itsGood Life Project, providing guidelines on measuring trust. It gathers research from across the globe on types of trust, elements of trust, and how the presence or absence of trust translates into outcomes. That report is informing the trust diagnostic tool that we are building for our clients, to sit alongside our relational proximity metric.

Here is a flavour of the OECD findings that are particularly relevant:

Institutional trust is fundamental to the effective functioning of institutions and networks… When people have a high level of trust in institutions, compliance is less of a problem, and it is easier to implement policies that may involve trade-offs between the short and long-term, or between different parts of society… Institutional trust is especially important to government activities that address market failures (e.g. public health …) or where long-term gains require short-term sacrifices …

It is not too difficult to identify examples of societies where institutional trust has been undermined, which (perhaps not coincidentally) are having a particularly tough time navigating COVID-19 as a shared challenge.

The report also distinguishes between 2 ingredients of institutional trust:

  • Competence – whether the functioning of institutions matches people’s expectations about the competencies of those steering them
  • Intentions – whether institutions act in a way that is perceived as ethical and fair.

If either ingredient is missing or diminished, institutional trust will fall across the community, undermining the consistency of compliance and the capacity of government to achieve its policy objectives.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has rightly received widespread acclaim for the energy and clarity he has given to transparency of intentions. He regularly speaks of the very human impact of this pandemic as a reminder of the rationale for the restrictions.

Where various commentators suggest he is struggling is in providing assurance on the competence of the arms of government that must work effectively and collaboratively together to protect our most vulnerable. A reluctance to speak promptly and transparently about mistakes that have been made (hotel quarantine, aged care readiness) and what has been learned and is being strengthened, risks undermining the community’s trust in the competence of the engine of the state.

When that happens, the research tells us that our capacity to unite in common cause will diminish.

So, the take-home for those of us who don’t lead governments? 

  • What is true in leadership at a government level applies equally at the organisation or team leader level. Building trust requires us to be clear about both our competence (which does not mean always getting it right, but does require acknowledgment of the need to change when we get it wrong), and our purpose, values and objectives
  • As citizens, we all have a shared responsibility to protect those institutions that underpin confidence in the competent and transparent operation of the state – independent media, open decision-making, the rule of law, rights of review
  • When we observe examples of non-compliance, we might pause before naming and shaming, and acknowledge our own instinct (and often actions) to prefer our short-term interests over the longer-term and broader-based interests of the community. 

There’s no escaping it. We are in this one together.