Why We Don't Trust Our Politicians

Few voters are as stupid as most politicians seem to think they are.

17/08/2016 6:51 AM AEST | Updated 17/08/2016 6:52 AM AEST
David Gray / Reuters
"We want to believe our leaders will say what they mean and mean what they say. We can't."

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, once said of trust: "You know it when you feel it." I'd add that you also know it when you don't. Few things are as precarious as trust. It can take years to build and just moments to destroy. Why is it then that so many people, particularly those leaders we 'entrust' to lead us, act in ways that create such a deficit of trust?

A quick audit of the political landscape around Australia and the globe points to a growing deficit of trust in those elected to govern us. Where once we assumed those who'd climbed the political ranks to power had done something to earn it, today people are more cynical than ever about their right to make decisions that affect our organisations, livelihoods, family, freedom and future.

What else would explain the popularity of independents and outliers -- from the bombastic Donald Trump to socialist Bernie Sanders and, closer to home in Australia, the anti-immigration Pauline Hansen? All people who, not so long ago, wouldn't have been taken seriously but who've attracted support beyond what even the best political pundits ever anticipated.

Research shows that people are far more cynical of political leaders than business leaders. Yet the growing deficit of trust in those elected to political office holds valuable lessons for any person who aspires to lead a more competitive organisation that leverages the full quota of talent within its walls. These lessons can be broken down into the four pillars of trust -- sincerity, competence, reliability and concern. When any pillar is compromised, all are weakened.

Sincerity: Would they say and do the right thing, even if it cost them?

We measure a leader's sincerity by the perceived size of the gap between what they're saying and what we believe they actually think. In our age of political correctness, where people tip toe around issues to minimise the chance of offending anyone (particularly 'interest groups' looking for any way to claim it), the gap between the 'private' internal conversations of our leaders and the verbalised 'public' ones has grown cavernous. Little wonder so many are left wondering "What do they really think?"

The recent debate about when the 'real Malcolm' will reveal himself is indicative of how weary people have grown of hearing rhetoric sans realness. We may loathe Pauline Hansen's bigotry but few wonder what she really thinks.

We want to believe our leaders will say what they mean and mean what they say. We can't. We want to believe they'll do the right thing, even it if it's not politically expedient, and own their mistakes. We can't. We want to think their personal sense of integrity is more important than winning or keeping power. We can't. And we want to applaud their moral courage. Again, for the most part, we can't.

Competence: Do they have the skills needed to get the job done?

It takes considerable expertise, experience and acumen to run a company, and running a government department with billion-dollar budget, or a country, takes no less. Yet time and time again we see people charged with overseeing massive budgets and complex organisations with relatively little competence for doing so. Sure there are clever people working hard to shape policy and run government, but there are far too many who've been masterful in playing political poker but are ill equipped to actually do the job when they win.

When Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed his new cabinet last year, it attracted global attention. Not only did it comprise of 50 percent women, mostly under 50, reflecting the diversity of 'real Canada', but the responsibilities of each cabinet member actually reflected their experience and expertise.

An aboriginal lawyer was appointed as minister of justice and attorney general, a former family doctor was appointed Minister for Health, a Paralympic swimmer oversees the sports ministry and a native of Afghanistan was made minister of democratic institutions. Imagine how differently we'd feel about our political leaders if the results they delivered proved they had the skill and knowledge required to do the job.

Reliability: Will they keep their promises?

Can I count on you to keep your promises? While we may not all verbalise this question out loud to those we deal with each day, it's a question we always ask.

"Jobs growth." "Better healthcare." "No pension cuts or tax increases." "Stable government." "Change you can believe in."

You only have to look at the long record of broken promises left by our political leaders to understand why we've lost trust in their reliability to deliver on them.

Concern: Do they genuinely care about what I care about?

A Gallup Poll of 10 million employees around the world asked them how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the statement: 'My supervisor or someone I work with cares about me as a person.' Those who agreed were found to be more productive, contributed more to the bottom-line profitability of their organisation and stayed with them longer.

The results reflect the importance people place on feeling that their leaders genuinely care about them.

It's human nature to want our leaders to care more about our wellbeing than they do growing and maintaining their power. We want to think they care about our suffering and what we most care about -- not for the sake of how they can use that knowledge to craft a better speech but for the sake of how it can create better lives and build better communities, better healthcare, better education, better welfare, better economic policy, better families, better social justice, better opportunity and a better future.

Given how much time the leaders in each party spend criticising their opponents and how little they spend listening to their constituents, it's hardly surprising that we've grown cynical on the motivations underlying their well-crafted speeches and three-word slogans.

Few voters are as stupid as most politicians seem to think they are. They understand the ruthless 'kill or be killed' nature of the political arena which often requires politicians to walk a fine line between doing what's best in the long term and what's palatable for voters. Yet that line has moved so far away from what is real that we're left wondering whether we can trust anything our politicians say.

Certainly, those who succeed in winning our trust will not be those who have the smoothest hair or whitest camera smile, but those we decide are in politics for a purpose larger than accruing personal power, and, if put to the test, would do what they felt was right, even if it required forfeiting that power.

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