The Edelman Trust Barometer 2017 showed the strongest decline ever seen in the general public’s trust in government, media, non-profits and corporations worldwide. Trust in the leaders of institutions is rapidly declining as well. In 2017, a mere 37% of respondents said they trusted CEO’s to ‘do the right thing’ globally. In the Netherlands, where 71% of the public can’t identify a CEO by name, trust was even lower, at 27% .

So why is that? The Trust Barometer, Edelman’s annual global research into the state of Trust, shows there is a huge gap between what the general public believes is important, and what they believe CEO’s deem important. That divide has never been more substantial and this makes it difficult for the public to identify with CEO’s. Who are these business leaders? Do they know what is going on in the lives of people and their employees? Do they care? Why do they make so much money compared to the average employee?

In our research we found that the following 5 points would help business leaders to build trust and be more engaged with the public:

  • Be approachable and visible;
  • Share your personal values, tell people what you stand for;
  • Talk with people, not at them;
  • Share your vision on your industry;
  • Lead by example.

Research shows that people who can name more CEOs have higher trust in business leaders in general, and that the process of building recognition builds trust. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, is the only CEO with double digit name recognition (10%). The past few years, CEOs in the Netherlands have been reticent when it comes to being in the public eye, but this has had adverse consequences when it comes to trust. In the eyes of the public, it is the responsibility of a CEO to talk about what the values of the company are and what they stand for as leaders, as well as about their personal values. By showing the public the human side of corporate leadership, the public becomes more trusting of the CEO and the distance between companies and the public can decrease.

In addition, CEOs must focus less on doing things ‘for’ people, but should instead work ‘together with’ people to identify and create long term value for society as a whole. This is the connection between public and commercial activity that people are looking for that creates recognition of shared values and lets consumers identify with business leaders.

The general public also expects personal visibility from business leaders and vision that goes beyond their own company. Leaders should connect what their business is doing to societal issues and challenges, and be involved in driving positive change, Business, we know from our research, can and is expected to be a force for good in the eyes of the public, as 75% of people surveyed believe that driving positive societal change is compatible with pursuing a for-profit business agenda.

Trust in all institutions is declining, but it remains highest in business. In combination with the fact that the public wants CEOs to lead broad change, this is an opportunity for business leaders. To capitalize on it, they must change their approach to engaging with the public. As illustrated so aptly in a 13-page section in leading Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad, to which Edelman contributed, the future belongs to the engaged CEO.