How Businesses Can Help Rebuild Trust in America’s Institutions

In the latest Path Forward event, experts discussed declining trust people have in institutions, its potential negative impacts on society, and how businesses can rebuild trust.


Air Date: February 15, 2022

Moderator: Suzanne P. Clark, President and CEO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Featured Guests: Matt Harrington, Global President and COO, Edelman, Thomas Bollyky, Director of the Global Health Program, Council on Foreign Relations, Kristin Lord, President and CEO, IREX

Trust is not something most people spend much time thinking about, but trust is an important ingredient in the day-to-day functioning of families, businesses, and society as a whole. If trust in institutions gets too low, there can be negative or even dangerous consequences that ripple through a community.

In the latest Path Forward event from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, U.S. Chamber President and CEO Suzanne Clark discussed the declining trust we have in institutions—and in one another—and the potential negative impact this is having on society.

The Decline of Trust—Measured

Several groups have tracked the decline in Americans’ trust in institutions. This year, a study from Edelman showed almost two-thirds of people are inclined to distrust organizations.

“We’re living in a moment where distrust is the baseline, where we have to navigate disinformation,” said Matt Harrington, global president and COO, Edelman. “The flip side is trusted information. The equation for building trust starts with quality information.”

This decline in trust has been tracked across different institutions over decades, according to Thomas Bollyky, director of the Global Health Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“In the U.S., trust both in government and in one another has been in precipitous decline,” Bollyky said. “And that has really undermined our ability to respond effectively in this pandemic.”

Every day on social media, in offices, and in classrooms across the country, trust and factual information fight a never-ending battle against distrust and disinformation. Excessive distrust has a slowly-growing negative impact on society and the functioning of institutions we all rely on.

“Trust is important because it’s sort of like a grease in the social machine. Research tells us that markets are more efficient, that public institutions deliver services more effectively, basically, everything just works better when we have trust,” said Kristin Lord, president and CEO of IREX.

When disinformation and distrust grow unchecked—there can be serious negative impacts.

“Conversely, you can think of distrust as being a bit like a social tax, a drag,” Lord said. “When there isn’t trust you need more compliance, more monitoring, more levels of contractual agreement, more security. It costs more, it takes more time to do everything.”

The Business Community and Trust

One silver lining of the Edelman report was that the most trusted sub-group was business: “My employer” is now the most trusted of any institution at 77%. This means businesses—and the larger business community—can play an important role in rebuilding trust through their employees and customers.

“We’ve been talking a lot at the Chamber about businesses being loud,” said Clark. “We have to be as passionate in our views about free markets, free enterprise, and democracy as others are.”

Trust should not be given to any institution or public figure, but should be earned, Lord said. There are two ways companies and other institutions can build trust:

• Trust by performance — Do you deliver on your promises? Do you do what you said you would do?

• Trust by intention — Do you show that you have the same goals at heart as your employers, customers, and other stakeholders?

“Businesses need to be engaged with their employees and their communities, but use their own values as the guideposts for what topics matter most and on which they engage,” Harrington said.

What Everyone Can Do to Rebuild Trust

Rebuilding trust is not only a job for CEOs, executives, policymakers, and other leaders—it’s a job for all of us. At work, in our communities, and families we all have a role to play in listening, practicing respectful dialogue, and working to rebuild frayed trust in one another.

“Don’t feed the beast, don’t be another person piling on on social media,” said Lord. “Be the person who’s reaching across boundaries…Anything all of us can do to help make these conversations more constructive, more empathetic—I think that’s a good old American, common sense, non-partisan approach that a lot of people could get behind.”