Trust of CEOs Has Never Been Lower: Here Are 8 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 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 and influence has now shifted to the masses.

Only 37% of the general population says CEOs are credible and influence has now shifted to the masses.

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.


8 communication strategies that can help a ceo build trust

Avoid corporate-speak.

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

Using jargon can make your message boring and less believable and can make you less accessible as a leader. Instead use short, simple words that can be widely understood. 

Give your people a voice.

While people 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 share employee voices on topics that are generally addressed by leaders.

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 worker is dizzied by the speed of change, complexity of life and pervasiveness of communication--and as a result is often anxious. Rather than reacting to the anxious behaviors of others, address the root of their fears in your communication. For example, a person’s view on technology, immigration, centralization and globalization could be tied back to a fundamental fear of job loss—which could mean calamity for his or her family. Knowing the sources of these fears can help you craft messages that address the underlying fears.

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

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

Address your audience's biggest concerns.

Does your communication strategy include listening? Build in 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.


Use truth to build trust.

It's easy to avoid discussing harsh realities because of fear of the consequences, and yet as we have seen in recent history, misinformation, incomplete information or withholding information erodes trust.  is loss of trust—the most powerful human and organizational currency there is. As leaders, we can influence truth-telling by modeling this behavior and rewarding it in our organization.

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

Monitor the optics: do behaviors match words?

Is there a gap between what your organization says and does? What we do speaks more loudly than what we say.

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

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.

Deploy and train your middle managers as communicators.

Middle managers are the culture torchbearers, the influencers, the tone-setters with the greatest internal reach. 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 of our clients 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 nine 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.

Speak from your heart.

The Edelman study says that spontaneity and outspokenness rank speakers higher in believability than those who are diplomatic and polite. Using your own voice and speaking about things that you care about conveys authenticity--which 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, the CEO broke from her standard business updates and came in with a message of inspiration that was based on her own personal experience and passion, generating enthusiastic responses from her internal audience.

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