11/13/2013 12:20 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Rob Ford and Disgraced Senators: Building Trust in a Cynical World

Last week was quite unlike anything we have seen in Canada. Last Tuesday, three senators were suspended and Toronto's Mayor admitted that he smoked crack. In May 2013, when I was still somewhat hopeful about Mayor Ford, I wrote a Huff Post blog about his Mayorship. I recommended actions which would help Mayor Ford regain his reputation. As we know, he continued on his path of inappropriate behaviour and has now lost the trust of most of the public. People thought they had seen it all and even those who were blasé about scandals couldn't help but react to this one. The public wonders: what's next? Who's next?

It is against this backdrop that I delivered a webinar on Trust to members of Boards of Directors in the financial services sector. It was impossible to discuss my material without beginning with the current events taking place in our country. When I was building my presentation and referencing cynicism, I had no idea that these events would occur. It is always a challenge for executives to build high trust relationships both within and external to their organizations. Getting through the doubt and cynicism takes considerable time, effort and investment.

Why does this matter? I, along with Richard Leblanc, discussed why trust matters at the Board level. We talked about the importance of leading from the top and that Boards must model the behaviour they're hoping to see in their organization. Trust is a core value and one which requires reciprocity and leadership. As such, it's critical that to gain trust, you must first give trust. If a Board wants to build a high-trust organization, then Board members must first ensure that they interact in a trusting, and trustworthy way with one another. Then, they must cascade that spirit of trust to their executive team and throughout the organization.

It is no longer sufficient to take a view of trust which is individually based. What I mean is that while trust is relationship based (I trust you and I hope you trust me) we all operate in a broader context. Trust happens at three levels -- macro, meso and micro -- and we need to be aware of this when we are building relationships with clients and colleagues. First, there is the macro level of trust which functions at the societal level. This is the level of trust which has been in a steady decline since the 1960s. People are losing confidence that authorities, governments and other institutions are truly looking after their best interests.

The Pew Centre reports a steady decline in trust in government since 1958, settling at all-time lows in the last two years. The Edelman Trust Barometer indicates that the public only trusts experts/academics and "people like themselves" to report information. CEOs and business executives rank very low in trust. These findings reinforce the doubt people feel in their leaders, public authorities and politicians. Too often, organizations and governments put forth pronouncements and promises that are tough to deliver on. There are continual disappointments when executives and officials don't deliver; when fraud occurs; or when responses to natural disasters are inadequate.

Trust also occurs at the meso level which can occur within a sector and between a sector and its regulatory authorities. Often, the public doesn't differentiate between organizations when fraud or misconduct takes place within one organization. This was certainly the case with the financial services sector which had multiple cases of misconduct. The public eventually doubted whether any institution within the sector could be trusted. They didn't differentiate between organizations.

Trust also builds and grows through the individual and small acts which occur in everyday interactions. At the micro level, trust occurs within an organization and between individuals. Trust requires consistency and reciprocity. Consistency is easiest when you start with an attitude and set of values which place trust at its centre. It means a lot when somebody can count on you or your organization to follow through with your promise. This is especially true when you are building your brand and reputation; how often do you consistently deliver on your brand promise?

Trust is fundamental to the safety and security of our institutions and our society. We have already witnessed the negative fall-out when trust is breached. Our world changed after 9/11 -- the ultimate trust violation. How difficult our world has become as a result of the falling levels of trust. Airport travel, border checks, and more of our information being tracked is the consequence of an increasingly low trust society. Low trust is costly as we build infrastructure and mechanisms to protect ourselves. Unless there is a fundamental shift in attitudes and behaviour, we will all bear the cost of low trust. The issue is, though, who will go first?