THE BLOG
03/20/2013 01:17 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2013

Overcoming the 5 Barriers to Trust

"Pragmatically realistic." According to the 2013 Harris Poll RQ, that's how we feel about corporate America. Not enthusiastic or even optimistic, but pragmatically realistic. Few business leaders will find those results reassuring, and yet it represents an improvement over last year's poll.

Of the 60 "most visible" companies nominated based on their reputation (both good and bad), only six met the standard of 'excellent.' Think about that for a minute. Only 10 percent of companies known for their reputations are considered excellent. The other 90 percent probably wish Harris graded on a curve.

If that's not worrying enough, then this next result will keep business leaders up at night. Harris classified 56 percent of poll participants as "seekers," people who will actively research companies before they do business with them. Equally important is that those seekers are more likely to both act on their findings and share what they've learned.

At what point will the business world finally get the point? People care about the reputations of the companies they do business with. And one of the biggest drivers of reputation is trust. Just consider the six areas that Harris measured -- social responsibility, emotional appeal, products and services, vision and leadership, financial performance, and workplace environment. To give a company a high ranking in any of these areas requires that we trust them to perform as promised.

So why don't more companies embrace trust as a tangible, learnable, and measurable asset? Because it requires four things that don't fit the business world's (or society's) current obsession with instant gratification--time, effort, diligence and character. In addition, trust is not without risk because it depends on people and their ability demonstrate leadership in the organization. And because trust doesn't come easy, you have to earn it.

Consider the five companies at the bottom of the Harris Poll. While the companies are visible enough that we know who they are, the reasons we can say we've heard of them aren't good ones. All companies in the bottom five had scores of less than 60, which Harris defines as "Poor" or even "Critical" if they got less than 50 (compared to the 80 or more needed to earn an "Excellent").

Bank of America (Score -- 55.85): As one of the most prominent banks to stumble during the financial crisis, Bank of America is still cleaning up the mess from 2008-2009, including a lawsuit that claims "the banks sold securities backed by shaky mortgages." Then there's the technology issue. In recent months, Bank of America has suffered serious technology glitches that cut off customer access. It's hard to trust a company when the service they're providing doesn't work.

American Airlines (Score -- 53.85): A little over a year ago, American filed for bankruptcy. To cut costs, American made plans eliminate jobs. But just how much loyalty will those remaining employees have for American? This move makes it difficult for the people American needs most -- the ones that keep the planes moving -- to trust that their company has loyalty for them.

Halliburton (Score -- 52.51): Halliburton made headlines for its role as a contractor on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. It's currently in the middle of multiple lawsuits alleging they're responsible for the deaths of 11 workers and millions of barrels of oil spilling into the gulf. And Halliburton can't seem to stay out of the courtroom even though litigation raises serious trust questions, including a class action lawsuit filed by shareholders.

Goldman Sachs (Score -- 49.49): A Senate investigation found that Goldman "used net short positions to benefit from the downturn in the mortgage market, and designed, marketed, and sold CDOs in ways that created conflicts of interest with the firm's clients and at times led to the bank's profiting from the same products that caused substantial losses for its clients." Goldman's actions demonstrated a clear conflict of interest, a huge barrier to building trust. It also didn't help that a former executive recently published a memoir describing Goldman's environment as being "toxic."

AIG (Score -- 48.57): It's no surprise that AIG holds the last spot on the list. During the financial crisis, AIG was the recipient of hundreds of billions in bailout dollars from the American government despite the fact its own bad bets were to blame for their problems. And it seemed like the scandals would never end. From paying employees bonuses with taxpayer dollars to executives staying at luxury resorts post bailout, AIG has made it incredibly difficult to look past the scandals and trust the company.

For each of these companies, reclaiming their good reputation (or establishing a good one for the first time) requires working off a trust deficit. That can be a hard truth to accept.

It's much easier to believe there's some magic solution that will take a company from good to great. It's one of the reasons we often see companies focus on the numbers. They tell themselves if they just reach a certain revenue goal or hit a particular stock price that will solve the problem.

However, while numbers can be nice and neat and look great on a spreadsheet, numbers can also make it easy to ignore what business really needs to focus on if they're serious about building trust -- the people. This may be why 54 percent of people have a negative view of the banking industry -- it's a group dedicated to numbers.

Leaders don't wake up in the morning and say to themselves, "I can't wait to make our customers trust us less." But for some, as demonstrated by the bottom five in the Harris Poll, their actions seem to imply it.

Business is at a crossroads. There will be the companies that recognize the importance of trust and embed its core pillars, like clarity, competence, and consistency, in the way they do business. Then there will be the companies that just hope no one notices that they can't be trusted. Unfortunately for them, hope isn't a strategy recommended by any business school I know.

David Horsager, MA, CSP, is an award-winning speaker, author, producer, and business strategist who has researched and spoken on the bottom-line impact of trust across four continents. He is the author of The Trust Edge: How Top Leaders Gain Faster Results, Deeper Relationships, and a Stronger Bottom Line (Free Press, 2012). Get free resources and more at www.DavidHorsager.com and www.TheTrustEdge.com.