I was fortunate enough to hear Onora O’Neill give the keynote speech at the NCVO/VSSN Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference a few days ago. At a time when the voluntary sector is – like many other parts of our national fabric – considering aspects of transparency and accountability – Baroness O’Neill’s speech was a much-needed consideration of the ideas of trust and trustworthiness with some nuance that has been lost in our public discourse.
What particularly struck me, however, was a framework for trustworthiness. O’Neill pointed out that some (people, organisations) want to be trusted but don’t put the work in and they don’t deserve it. She offers three building blocks for trustworthiness: you need to be
Reliable, competent and honest
If you’re like me you’ll immediately apply these three criteria to people you know, organisations you like and don’t like, and perhaps yourself too. I like the framework very much, not just for its application to the personal or to the voluntary sector (where organisations will differ in their required mix of the blocks) but also to brands in and out of the not-for-profit world. We often talk about brands being the personification of an organisation’s promise but I think that breaking into these three attributes is really helpful, especially when thinking about which elements give competitive advantage or might need attention. Trust is context-dependent. (One of those contexts is location, which is why local organisations which we can see and whose performance against these attributes we feel we can accurately judge are better trusted than organisations that we interact with solely online.)
Using this framework also enables us to better decouple trustworthiness from other brand facets like tone of voice and likability. O’Neill reminded her conference crowd that transparency and accountability aren’t in themselves sufficient for trustworthiness to be properly assessed.
We can all think of people or companies that have tried to focused on style over the ability to get the job done – or their counterparts who have revelled in their solidness. Where the right mix of these lies is up to you. A good example to consider is Virgin Trains, whose cheeky bonhomie can jar as the delay outside Watford Junction enters its second hour (whether the fault of Virgin or not) but whose style is important in attracting discretionary travellers.
But at a time when trust in all institutions continues to fall, it’s incumbent on all of us to think about where we and our organisations sit on these building blocks, and whether we are giving our stakeholders adequate tools to judge for themselves. What do you think?