Briefings Magazine

The Trust Recession

Workers’ distrust in a firm and their own exhaustion can go hand in hand.

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By: Meghan Walsh

There is one commodity that underpins all others, and—like many goods and products these days—it’s in short supply: trust. At the start of the pandemic, even in the days when buying toilet paper was a cutthroat endeavor, trust was easier to come by. In the face of extraordinary circumstances, people were willing to afford one another a measure of grace. But as the pandemic drags into a third year, the evidence suggests that a lot of that goodwill is wearing thin.

Consumers no longer feel they can rely on customer service to resolve complaints. Air travelers don’t have faith their flights will arrive on time, or even take off at all. Meanwhile, bosses don’t trust that their workers are actually working at home, and colleagues who have never met in person are suspicious: Was that comment hostile or good-natured? According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, a global survey conducted annually for the last 22 years, distrust is now society’s default emotion. That go-it-alone mentality may not be wreaking havoc just yet, but experts say it will make businesses less resilient to future adversity.

At the start of the pandemic, Ward van Zoonen, an associate professor of organizational dynamics at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, began tracking trust among Finnish workers. In March 2020, when the world first went into lockdown, the sentiment was fairly strong. But by the fall, it had deteriorated significantly. The most notable erosion was in the confidence workers had in their leaders. “Employees look to leaders for vision,” says Korn Ferry senior client partner Craig Rowley, “but there’s not an executive in the world who can think three to five years out right now. They’re not sure where we’ll be in three months.”

A number of factors have contributed to the relational breakdown. Working remotely has eliminated opportunities for colleagues to prove their trustworthiness (no one sees you staying late at the office), while many of the hardships of the pandemic have made meeting obligations more difficult. As organizations try to accommodate the needs of their workers, particularly caregivers, they’re stoking a growing sense of inequity that fuels further distrust, says Mark Mortensen, an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. Then there is the matter of widespread fatigue. “People are fried,” Mortensen says. “There is no question that willingness to trust changes depending on how much we have in the tank.”

A year into his study, van Zoonen says, the trust free fall reached a plateau, where it’s sat stubbornly ever since. Along with trust, the Dutch researcher is tracking well-being. Not surprisingly, the two run parallel. As any business leader knows, employee skepticism brings down morale, productivity, and innovation—and increases attrition.

Many corporate heads have their sights set on ending the Trust Recession in 2022. Humor, vulnerability, and sincere intentions will go a surprisingly long way in that effort. Most important, though, is reciprocity. Experts say leaders—from managers to the C-suite—should start by reinforcing their own trustworthiness and giving others the benefit of the doubt. “What will make me trust you more is knowing you trust me,” Mortensen says. “If leaders show they trust their employees, they will get that trust paid back.”


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