Trust is the Bedrock Beneath Every Lead With We Business — Part 6 “Trust Requires Your Taking a Stand

Photo Provided By Nick Fewings

This post is the sixth in a series of eight that examines the bedrock beneath every Lead With We business: Trust that builds reputation, culture, sales, and loyalty during a time of crisis.

Building consumer trust will inevitably require our business and its leaders to take a stand on a key issue — even a hot-button issue. The main danger — the futility — lies in attempting to stay neutral in an über-politicized climate. In fact, the 2022 Edelman’s Trust Barometer reveals that business needs to step up on societal issues — not shrink back.

Think Dick’s Sporting Goods on gun control, Starbucks on marriage equity, Airbnb on immigration, Abbott on women leaders, Intel on Black causes, Major League Baseball on voting rights, Nike on social justice, and Patagonia on public lands and the environment.

Although business outscores government by 53 points on competency and 26 points on ethics, Edelman respondents want business to do more to address societal problems, such as climate change (52%), economic inequality (49%), workforce reskilling (46%) and — this one’s key to this series — trustworthy communication (42%).

“Societal leadership is now a core function of business,” the report states. When considering a job, 60 percent of employees want their CEO to speak out on controversial issues they care about. And a full 80 percent of the general population expect CEOs to be personally visible when discussing public policy with external stakeholders or the impact their company has exerted to benefit society. In particular, CEOs are expected to shape conversation and policy on jobs and the economy (76%), wage inequity (73%), technology and automation (74%), and global warming and climate change (68%).

This is not just about selling stuff. Here, trust requires the establishment and support of social movements, cultural conversions, and systemic change. The next-generation leaders are earning the trust of their communities by taking a stand, for example, on Diversity, Inclusion & Equity (against racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and ableism). They’re invested in addressing the root causes of racial inequality to earn or retain that trust. Same across the spectrum of crises society faces today.

Surveys reveal employees are ready and willing to trust their employers (77 percent in 2022, up from just 57 in 2019), but the trust must be earned through more than “business as usual.” Employees’ expectation that prospective employers will join With them in acting on societal issues — creating an important pillar of We — is nearly as high as their expectations of personal empowerment (74 percent) and job opportunity (80 percent).

Critically, nearly half the mass population surveyed believes “the system” is failing them. But along with that pessimism and anxiety, Edelman reports over the past few years show a growing move toward engagement and action. We are taking up the mantle, leading. Together.

But, like the leadership at Chick-fil-A, Goya, Under Armour, and MyPillow, there’s a tremendous risk in the potential of the public to perceive that you’re on the wrong side of history by overtly supporting candidates, sitting politicians, or positions who/which are themselves, lightning rods.

Again, you should not attempt neutrality — sometimes you have to grab the hot potato — but know that political issues are polarizing at best — and destructive at worst, if not handled wisely. In truth, the heightened expectation of business and its leadership demands conscious choices.

Most importantly, whatever stand you take, and wherever it might land on the political spectrum, it must arise authentically, be expressed consistently, and be supported by meaningful follow-through.

This will go some distance in consumer’s demand that business must lead in breaking the cycle of distrust, according to Edelman. Across every single issue, by a huge margin, people want more business engagement, not less. For example, on climate change, 52 percent say business is not doing enough, while only 9 percent say it is overstepping. The role and expectation for business have never been clearer, and business must recognize that its societal role is here to stay.

So, as an extension of your core purpose, decide among your leadership and companywide associates where you stand on said issue. And then speak and act accordingly. Yes, it will probably come at a cost in that it might polarize your audience. When then-CEO of Starbucks Howard Schultz demonstrated this by inviting shareholders that did not align with their support of same-sex marriage to “sell their shares” (after Starbucks announced its support for Washington state’s referendum backing gay marriage, in response to the National Organization for Marriage launched a boycott of the coffee chain, and some blamed that response for lower sales).

The company found it also deepened the loyalty of shareholders, employees, and customers that shared its values. The same is true across the wide spectrum of issues business leaders must navigate today.

No doubt, each company, and its leadership faces a choice as to the tone of engagement they adopt — from polite participation to outright protagonism, but the reality is unavoidable. The most dangerous thing a company can do is try and play safe. You only alienate loyalists on both sides of any issue, and risk atrophying hard-won reputation capital that can take years to recover.

The days when the purview of business stops at the literal edge of said business are gone for brands of all sizes in different forms — be it corporate, entrepreneurial, celebrity, or influencer — and the expectations from your employees and customers are clear. Take a stand.

And as Nike discovered in the recovery of its stock price after taking a globally publicized hit in response to its support of Colin Kaepernick over police violence against people of color. Or Patagonia discovered since it sued the President over its exposure of public lands to mining, the deeper you double down on your stated purpose at potential cost to yourself, the greater opportunity you have — reputation enhancement, earned media, and yes, precious sales — to reap bottom-line rewards.

Do you want to increase trust in your brand? Take a stand.

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