Trust seems to be an endangered species these days. Survey after survey tells us that Americans don’t trust their government or the media or each other very much. About business they’re ambivalent. They’re amazed at what corporations are able to achieve, but they’re not sure of their motives. As a result, nearly 70% of Americans say that building trust is now the number one job for CEOs.
What are people asking for when they want businesses to “build trust”?
Trust expert Charles Feltman defines trust as the “decision to make something you value vulnerable to the actions of another”. When people choose to trust your company, what are they placing in your care? Certainly that you’ll deliver on the promise implicit in the products and services you provide. But in a world that’s grown increasingly unstable, they also want to know you are seeing the whole. That your company is a force for cohesion rather than disintegration.
Becoming a force for cohesion starts with the language we use. “In this era of mistrust, words are more important than ever,” says Michael Maslansky, author of The Language of Trust. His recipe for building trust is simple, but not easy: Sound human, communicate openly and be willing to acknowledge your faults.
Say what you mean—with love
We can start with dropping a few things, namely jargon and euphemisms. The inherited lexicon of corporate responsibility, with its emphasis on compliance to standards and norms, has created a landscape of words that are often complex and conditional. The language of compliance tends toward euphemisms, which sow distrust by trapping us in meaningless language, as George Carlin noted in his famously funny rant on shell shock.
Perhaps this decay in our language is a sign that responsibility is no longer sufficient. Journalist Mark Paul sums up the paradox in true Irish fashion: “Corporate social responsibility (CSR) must be one of the dullest concepts in the grey, brain-deadening lexicon of business gibberish. Why would you want to take such a joyous notion (showing care for your community) only to bludgeon the love out of it by making it fit a neat definition to suit some management handbook?”
How do we talk about the impact our business is having without “bludgeoning the love” out of it? Here are five brands we like for how they speak from the heart: Method, Dr. Bronner’s, Etsy, Patagonia and Unilever.
All of these companies manage to be engaging and substantive at the same time. Here’s how you can follow their lead:
- We tend to trust a company more when we know what it cares about. These companies make it clear.
- Framing your ambition in terms of impact rather than responsibility allows you to speak in a more active, future-oriented tone.
- Having a purpose gives you a place to come from—it drives and animates your language. It restores agency and gives you the confidence to act as if you are worthy of trust, even if you’re not perfect.
- Focusing on human stories—with all their conflict, struggles and incompleteness—is more convincing than a well-ordered set of facts.
- Using clear and thoughtful language signals sincerity and a genuine desire to connect to your audience.
These brands remind us that beneath all the noise and debates over the changing role of business in society is something that was true all along:
People don’t want us to be “responsible”; they want us to love the world and them in it. That’s the way we will build and keep their trust.