How Purpose Can Regain Trust

02/09/2015 12:07 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

For many of us who attended this year's World Economic Forum, the issue of trust dominated much of the discussion. Despite the improving global economy, trust in global institutions among the world's population is at an all-time low.

Regaining this trust will be a transformational process but will be critical for businesses and governments to succeed and thrive. This transformation is beyond just the introduction of better products or services. It must meet the demands of a public longing for authentic leadership that can demonstrate courage, values and above all -- a clear purpose.

The definition of a purpose is reason to exist. And the public, who ultimately vest power in all institutions, are looking for leadership in organizations to establish, express and align their purpose.

This rift was exposed in an annual survey on trust launched in Davos. Nearly two-thirds of nations' citizens are more distrustful than ever of all organizations. In other words -- an overwhelming majority of the world lacks faith in our leaders' ability to address any of the key issues and mega trends, even when the facts are on their side. People have stopped listening.

Even today, as economic news becomes more encouraging, leaders are finding it difficult to win back this trust. President Barack Obama proclaimed on the eve of Davos in his annual State of the Union address that we 'have turned the page on the great recession.' And while economic figures might suggest this, many people still do not believe leaders when they make these types of statements. The lingering deficit of credibility in the aftermath of the financial crisis is entrenched and has now come to define this current generation.

If this sentiment persists, the future does not bode well. Cynicism and disillusionment towards business and government will only grow greater if left unaddressed, even when the motives of these institutions are well intentioned. These conditions have the potential to create instability -- whether real or perceived.

Trust is the foundation of any successful business model -- including professional services firms like EY where we advise clients on a multitude of diverse and complex issues. In government, elected officials' careers and success as policy makers depend on winning the public's trust. New laws to address important issues can't be passed and enforced without the broad support of a constituency.

To earn and rebuild the public's trust, we must first show an ability to align to a broader purpose. If we have learned anything over recent years, companies need to demonstrate that their ethos is not motivated by profits alone, but also by values that demonstrate a level of consideration, diversity, fairness and inclusiveness that help to create a better working world. Likewise, politicians need to show a willingness to govern in an authentic and values driven way. They need to demonstrate a responsibility to their constituents beyond the calculations of re-election.

All of this requires leadership that is willing to engage openly with the public. People want their leaders to listen to them and have an honest conversation that covers both the good and bad sides of issues that matter.

As leaders, whether in government or business, we need to shape an authentic agenda that engages the public and our people. When people trust their leaders, they're better able to solve common problems. Trust is an asset that companies and governments need to understand. It is built on purpose. Building the right purpose-led culture is crucial.

Purpose can create a sense that we're on the right path. Everyone can feel that we've reduced risks and be on a shared route towards opportunity and growth. If people understand -- the purpose of their government or organisation, then they can truly measure success, rather than defaulting to an inherent suspicion of distrust.

But acting on this is easier said than done. Purpose that is simply a brand promise relegated to public relations or corporate social responsibility is impotent. A government or company can have a compelling story, but it still needs to connect to a public agenda that is understood.

Knowing this, successful organizations embed purpose at the heart of their strategy. As institutions pivot to become more purpose-led, they undergo an identity shift that can affect the way they innovate, recruit talent and interact with their base, be it clients or constituents. Their purpose becomes a decision lens for where to play and how to win, what to do and what not to do.

The global challenges of our time demand more from all of us -- and provide unique opportunities. Consumers today want more because they are more than mere consumers -- they want to be treated as citizens. Likewise citizens look to institutions for leadership. We all have a responsibility, as citizens and institutions, to communicate clearly about what we really believe in. To achieve this end, the public must see its leadership as authentic and personally involved in order for it to be credible. As leaders we need to always act on what we say and be visible and connected to all parts of our organizations. People are passionate and so too should be their leaders.

Uschi Schreiber, EY Global Vice Chair Markets
Uschi.Schreiber@eyop.ey.com
@uschischreiber