This article was first published in the November/December 2019 Ireland edition of
Accounting and Business magazine.

Can you explain the idea of distributed trust?

My first book, What’s Mine Is Yours, looked at how technology could make us engage in behaviours that might previously have been considered risky, such as opening our homes and cars to strangers. I was also hearing this narrative that trust was being eroded in institutions – in politics, media and the banks. This led to the idea that maybe it’s not that trust is eroding or declining, but that it’s changing form. Technology takes trust that flowed upwards and was very hierarchical, and distributes it to people in new ways, through networks, platforms and social media.

How does this relate to organisations?

It’s a mistake to think of trust as a brand that works like a pyramid, managed by the marketing and communications teams, and very much in the hands of leadership. That’s not true any more. If you look at the relationship between the employee and the employer, and between the customer and the consumer and the company, trust really lies in the hands of people.

Can trust be built?

There’s a myth around trust, particularly within professional services, that it can be built. Trust is something given to you. You can’t say you’re going to build more trust with me: I have to give you my trust, you have to earn it. There’s no brand, campaign or product that can manifest trust; you have to be trustworthy. So it lies in culture and behaviours.

How can an organisation be more trustworthy?

There are two sets of traits: capability and character. Capability traits include competence (how you do something) and responsiveness (your respect for time). But the real gold dust of trust lies in character, which is based essentially around empathy – a feeling that the organisation cares and understands where you’re coming from and respects your views and perspectives, even if they’re completely different to its own.

Then there’s integrity, which is the hardest trait for all organisations to scale. Often people think integrity can be faked, with things like CSR programmes or sustainability or charity, but integrity is about your motives, about asking whether your intentions align with the best interest of the consumer or user.

Do millennials have a different attitude to trust?

I think millennials are more sceptical in some ways. My parents’ generation were quite deferential to experts and leaders, and even brands. With millennials, it’s a whole different mindset: there is a hearty scepticism.

How much do people trust chatbots?

Customer service bots have a long way to go. Often people are going to customer service with a problem – and bots can’t empathise with someone who is frustrated or upset. I deal a lot with fintechs and it drives me mad when they don’t have a customer service department. It’s your money and you really don’t want to talk to Susie Chatbot; you want a human being because you need to believe in an instant that that person understands your problem.

Is there anything organisations can do to regain trust once they’ve lost it?

Most trust crises come down to integrity. The companies claim it’s a capability problem: ‘We’ll fix the system, put more bots on it, or whatever the technology fix is.’ But actually, it’s a culture problem: it’s people saying they don’t believe the company’s interests are aligned with theirs. That is a really hard place for a company to come back from.

Samsung is a good example. The company went through a trust crisis over problems with its Galaxy Note 7 smartphone. Samsung admitted it was about the phone but also said what was wrong with its systems and fixed them.

You’ve talked about transparency not being the answer.

People talk about transparency as a magical cure but it’s not. I think transparency is a tool. Gender pay is a good example. If we can get accurate, accessible information on gender pay, we can create some change around that. But blanket transparency is not the way to create more trust.

First of all, I don’t think any company can promise true transparency, so all you get is surface-level disclosure. I’m not saying that more transparency in banking is a bad thing: being clear around interest rates and terms and conditions and payment schedules is absolutely key. But this idea that more transparency increases trust is not how it works. If I really trusted the bank, I would believe what they said about interest rates; I wouldn’t need to know.

Who should take responsibility for creating a framework of trust?

It depends on the context. The sales centre should take responsibility for certain things. If we’re talking about diversity around hiring, that’s an HR issue. If we’re talking about good governance, that’s a legal issue. So it’s contextual.
When people talk about trust, they’re often talking about responsibility: who should be responsible when things go wrong? And so much of the anger, fear and lack of confidence around big systems – particularly financial institutions – is because of the lack of responsibility and accountability when things do go wrong.

Does regulation make companies seem more trustworthy or less?

People approach regulation in this top-down, hierarchical, linear fashion. You can see it with the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority trying to get its head around cryptocurrencies. You can’t apply the regulation that exists for existing currencies; a completely different mindset is needed – not just for what the regulation looks like, but how it is enforced. One of the mistakes we make is around how to create regulation that can be owned by the community. I don’t think we’ve cracked this idea yet of self-policing and community moderation.

What can accountancy professionals do to increase trust?

Trust does not lie with firms but with individuals. Accountants understand risk because risk can be measured; they understand money because money can be measured. But trust is not the same. You can measure the traits we talked about, but a sort of trust barometer? Well, you can’t measure a human belief.
Risk is made up of likelihood and severity: how bad something’s going to be and the likelihood of it happening. With any client, in any situation, I think it’s worth asking: ‘Am I trying to reduce the likelihood of something bad happening? Am I trying to reduce the severity of the possible consequence? Or am I trying to increase the confidence of my client to take this risk?’

Emma Woollacott, journalist