The annual "Trust Barometer" survey published by Edelman reports widespread scepticism about the ethics practised by political and business leaders. The lowest scores were when those surveyed were asked if they trust leaders to “tell the truth, regardless of how complex or unpopular it is”: only 18% trusted business leaders, whilst government leaders scored a yet more miserable 13%.

This lack of trust seems strikingly personal. As the report points out, trust in business and government leaders is far lower than trust in the respective institutions of business and government. Globally there is a gap of 32 percentage points between trust in business and trust in business leaders to tell the truth (35% in America and China), and a 28 percentage-point gap between trust in government and trust in its leaders to tell the truth (47% in China, 35% in India).

Whilst trust in leaders remains horribly low, overall trust in institutions has actually edged up in the past years—though hardly to levels at which anyone should feel satisfied. Overall trust across business, government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media is now 57%, up from 51% in 2012, according to Edelman’s barometer, which as in previous years is based on a poll in 26 countries of what Edelman calls “informed people”, which typically means professional and well-educated. A companion survey found significantly lower levels of trust among the population at large: 48%, nine percentage points less globally, 14 points less in America, Poland and Sweden. Institutions in only 11 of the countries enjoyed trust levels of at least 50% among their general public, whilst 18 did among informed people. 

Trust has risen evenly over all four sorts of institution. NGOs remain the most trusted, at 63%, and government least trusted, at 48%. In only eight countries is government trusted more than business, which is not saying much in low trust South Korea (government 44%, business 31%) and hard to believe in seemingly high trust China (81% and 74%). For government, the reasons cited for a lack of trust included corruption or fraud (33%) followed by poor performance (31%). Only 16% cited poor performance as a cause of low trust in business, whose top negatives were corruption or fraud (27%) and wrong incentives driving business decisions (23%). Executive pay retains the power to annoy: the only countries in which NGOs are trusted by less than 50% of those surveyed are Sweden (46%), Russia (40%) and Japan (37%).

As in 2012, technology is the most trusted industry, with 77% approval, eight percentage points ahead of the car industry. Even banks and financial services now enjoy a 50% trust score worldwide, up from 47% and 45% respectively in 2012. However, there are significant differences between countries on the banks, which are trusted by only 22% in Britain, 19% in Spain and 11% in Ireland (down from, respectively, 47%, 45% and 35% before the financial meltdown of 2008). Small firms are trusted more than big business in the developed world, by 76% to 53%; big is more trustworthy in emerging economies, by 79% to 70%.

Why the big gap between trust in leaders and the institutions they lead? Edelman suggests that leaders have been slow to adapt to the requirements of a world in which top down is no longer the best way to lead, or in many cases even a viable one.  

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