Trust is not a zero-sum game

As I watched the late-night floor sessions of the Alaska State Legislature before they adjourned earlier this month, one thing became crystal clear: Trust had absolutely collapsed. Zero trust existed between the different coalitions, among many of the members, or between the House and Senate.

Is it any wonder, then, that our state government is having so much trouble making important decisions and addressing urgent matters this year? The fact is, without trust, nothing CAN get done. So, what do we do?

First, we must understand why trust is essential to making progress in business and government.

Trust occurs in increments, often built from small, seemingly inconsequential moments over time. Trust is the unifying bridge for building relationships.

The most important aspect of true leadership is building and earning trust. It is the essential ingredient that allows individual relationships, organizations, and communities to flourish in a range of environments. Trust creates a unified sense of purpose and encourages participation and contribution.

Survey says: Global trust levels have tanked

Edleman, a venerable, global communications firm, annually conducts extensive worldwide research on trust. They release their findings free of charge for the public good.

To be blunt, the most recent research found the government is viewed as neither competent nor ethical. Once we understand that trust is the currency of leadership, it’s easier to see why progress has proved elusive in Alaska this year. Without trust, problems will remain unsolved and goals unreached.

What does that mean on a practical level? Businesses and employers rely on trust and predictability as they strategize and plan their futures in our state. Threats of government shutdowns, volatile budget debates, and stalemates create extreme uncertainty for business owners, their employees, service providers and recipients, and communities.

No one is happy about the situation, but no one trusts the other to compromise and work toward the common good. Hence, we find ourselves in a precarious and untenable situation.

Business gains ground

On the other end of the spectrum, trust in business is currently solid because people understand the motives and intentions of business, which are widely known, even if they sometimes annoy us (to remain in business, make a profit, advance a product or service, etc.) So, when a business takes a certain action, it comes across to their customers and employees as consistent with their goals because of demonstrated consistency. Being clear and following through on these intentions builds trust.

Alaska, we have a problem

Most Alaskans would likely say they don’t know or understand what goals local leaders are trying to achieve. Motives are unclear. Therefore, trust fails.

It is clear the two houses of our legislature and the different factions do not trust each other for whatever reason. It is likely both sides made mistakes along the way that eroded any trust that might once have existed. It now desperately needs to be repaired. What to do?

To quote the author Helio Fred Garcia, “Trust is the natural consequence of promises fulfilled, expectations met, values lived.”

Citizens are watching

Our leaders, whatever their backgrounds, must make it clear exactly what they’re trying to achieve, and set some realistic, attainable expectations. Then, they must work on those goals in full view of the public, and among each other, to show how they are making progress. Any missteps involving behind-the-scenes maneuvers, doublespeak, or playing “hide the ball” with the truth, and it’s back to square one.

For example, most citizens took recent mask mandates seriously during the pandemic. When it was discovered that some vocal mask supporters had, in fact, been seen and even photographed going mask-less in public when they thought they weren’t being watched, their trustworthiness cratered. And who could blame anyone for thinking so? Citizens demand actions match words before placing any trust in leaders, and they can smell a phony a mile away.

Time to come together

Another element mandatory for effective communication and trust is authentic engagement. In today’s bitterly divided environment, no one is going to get everything they want.

The parties in Juneau must engage with one another in a manner that acknowledges the way the deck is stacked. They must be willing to be vulnerable. They must be willing to lose something to reach a solution. And they must realize the political realities of a split legislature and work within those confines to get things done for their constituents.

Alaskans are still living in a stew of uncertainty. It’s been made worse by the pandemic, rampant disinformation, social unrest, economic upheaval, and an ever-widening political divide. People crave leadership that reduces uncertainty. By failing to outline an achievable vision and then making decisions that advance that vision (whatever it is,) officials are pouring gasoline on the flames of mistrust. The good news is that, while difficult, trust can be regained. Any path forward will require a good faith effort to turn over a new leaf, lean in, and be clear-eyed about the end goal. If everyone tells the truth, embraces transparency, acts with compassion and meets expectations for how people are to be treated during the process, there is hope.

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