Trust of CEOs Has Never Been Lower: Here Are 9 Tips on Communicating to Build Trust

Trust is the currency of leadership. It’s what inspires others to follow, support, and engage in a leader’s vision.

But there is troubling news on this front: this precious asset is in steady decline, with only 37% of the general population saying that CEOs are credible, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, a global study with 33,000 respondents

This general mindset of distrust filters into the workforce of every organization—even into those with high trust factors. That’s why understanding how to use communication to build trust is such a timely skill to cultivate—and one that almost every leader can improve upon.

 
Only 37% of the general population says CEOs are credible

Only 37% of the general population says CEOs are credible

64% say they find leaked information more believable than press statements.

64% say they find leaked information more believable than press statements.

55% say a company’s social media page is more believable than advertising.

55% say a company’s social media page is more believable than advertising.

 

9 communication Strategies That Can Help a CEO Build Trust

1. Address your audience's biggest concerns.

Does your communication strategy include listening? Create ways to ask your employees what kinds of things they want to know more about—what questions they’d like answers to, what changes are causing them concern, what ideas they have for improvement, and what their biggest obstacles to success are. Then craft messages around these topics. When audiences see you’re engaged with them, they’ll be more engaged with you, which builds a trust relationship.


2. Deliver messages via peers—rather than leaders.

While employees need to hear from leaders, the trust study states that peers are now seen as credible as experts. This is a good time to initiate ways to have appropriate messages delivered by employees.

Consider the subject matter experts in your organization who can speak intimately about the day-to-day operations and topics your audience is most familiar with. Bringing the voices of in-house experts into the conversation can signal a unified workforce, so trusting the message doesn’t hinge on perceptions of any one messenger.


3. Communicate empathy, reassurance, and calm in the face of fear and uncertainty.

Emotions are contagious, and this is why leaders especially need to project calm, warmth, and hope in their communications. Employees pick up on fear in their leaders, and it can spread quickly through an organization.

Today's employee is dizzied by the speed of change, complexity of life and pervasiveness of communication—and as a result is often anxious. But rather than reacting to anxiousness, address the root causes in your communication. For example, a person’s worries about technology, immigration, centralization and globalization could all be tied back to a fundamental fear of job loss. Knowing the sources of these fears can help you craft messages that address the underlying issues.

Not all messages are innately reassuring, of course. But striking a calm, hopeful tone can help defuse unpleasant messages.

FEARS FURTHER ERODE BELIEF IN THE SYSTEM

Percent of respondents with each fear who also believe that the system is failing them —2017 Edelman Trust Barometer


4. Use truth to build trust.

It’s easy to avoid discussing harsh realities because of their unpleasantness, yet the short-term benefit of avoidance is outweighed by the long-term effect. Misinformation, incomplete information or withholding information eventually erodes trust—the most powerful human and organizational currency. As a leader, you influence truth-telling by modeling this behavior and rewarding it in your organization.

When delivering tough messages, couple them with a plan of action and the why behind the decision. Paint a picture of what’s possible if the plan is implemented, to give people a focal point.

Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.
— Isaac Newton

5. Monitor the optics: Do behaviors match words?

Is there a gap between what your organization says and what it does? Consider designating a coach outside of the C-suite or the company who can see things with a fresh perspective, and have them review significant actions against your mission, vision, and values to ensure parity.

Zappos understands the significance of building a culture that is cohesive with a company’s words and values. As their CEO, Tony Hsieh, says: “Our belief is that a company’s culture and a company’s brand are just two sides of the same coin. The brand is just a lagging indicator of the culture.”

 

The "Stairway to Culture" in the Zappos Headquarters

The "Stairway to Culture" in the Zappos Headquarters


6. Deploy and train your middle managers as communicators.

Middle managers are the culture torchbearers, the influencers, and the tone-setters because they have more contact with both employees and leaders. It’s no wonder that communication from direct managers is the most effective channel for reaching employees, according to a CEB survey of more than 1,000 employees.

Provide your managers with communication training and tools and unleash them to do the important work of leadership armed with better skills and information. One CMBell client did this well when they focused a year-long communication initiative on leaders and conducted a survey at the end to determine its effectiveness. They found that their most important ideas had taken hold with their leadership team—with 9 out of 10 of them saying they better understood the why behind their work, knew more about their key strategies, and had a better understanding of the value of working together. From there, the managers could confidently reach the front-line staff with key messages they were already well-versed in.


7. Speak from your heart.

The Edelman study says that spontaneity and outspokenness make speakers more believable. Using your own voice and speaking about things that you care about conveys authenticity and builds trust.

Appropriate self-revelation creates connections, too. When delivering bad news, expressing your own sadness about it conveys empathy, which builds trust.

In this video example, the CEO broke from her standard business updates and delivered a message of inspiration that was based on her own personal experience and passion, generating enthusiastic responses from her internal audience. These kinds of messages can be important tools for building culture.


8. Use video when you can’t be there in person.

Video is perceived as more authentic than other media, according to a Viostream study. Viewers perceive fewer filters in video than in text, where words can be interpreted and misconstrued. Video also delivers additional and important communication through body language and tone of voice that can’t be conveyed as accurately in text alone.

Video can also be a very useful tool for delivering messages where precise language is essential. We recently worked with a client involved in a merger in a heavily regulated field where words had to be chosen carefully. A video message from the CEO allowed the message to be delivered directly to the audience using the precise language required by law.

And finally, video has the added advantage of being more personal and is the next best thing to being there—which is often impossible in large companies with a geographically distributed workforce. In video, leaders can convey both information and emotion, which can build trust.


9. Avoid corporate-speak.

Are you globally extending goal-oriented potentialities? Scaling intuitive partnerships? Building collaborative and idea-sharing modalities?

Even for employees who may understand it, jargon can make your message boring, less believable and can make you less accessible as a leader. Instead use short, simple words that can be widely understood.

 

How and where your message is displayed is just as important as the message.

Click below to see our infographic showing the best digital channels for employee communication.

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