The saying goes, trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair. It’s the foundation of any relationship; be that a marriage, between friends, with a position of authority or indeed a brand. When there is a breach of trust between two parties, the future relationship is at worst, doomed for failure and broken, or at best, shaky. Regardless, it’ll change forever.

In the past we’ve trusted the food we buy in supermarkets or eat in our schools and hospitals, believed in the police entrusted to keep us safe and the politicians who run our country. We’ve merrily trusted banks to look after our money, media to shape our news and opinions. We’ve expected our sporting heroes, TV personalities to entertain us honestly and celebrated their success when they did.

What I’ve been interested in though is how each institution or individual has dealt with being caught. Crisis management experts have not been short of work, that’s for sure. (Although poor old Max Clifford has found himself needing a little crisis management assistance too!)

They’ve ranged from the downright arrogant (and yes Lance Armstrong, Fred Goodwin and Chris Huhne – I’m talking about you) to those keen to point the finger to someone else (take a bow dodgy food producers, Rupert Murdoch, Fleet Street media, politicians with second homes and the Metropolitan Police).

To me it all stems with the person at the top and the culture they lead, inspire or have operated as part of.

I think it’s fair to say very few have held their hands up and said: “It’s a fair cop, guv.” On the occasions they have said sorry – it’s generally taken far too long to say it, and you got the feeling that they were more sorry about being caught rather than doing it in the first place.

What companies, brands and ‘untouchable’ institutions have completely underestimated though is the consumer’s ability to vote with their feet. Government’s changed, newspapers closed down, vegetarianism sweeping the nation, Tour de France winner stripped of medals, apologies made to the Hillsborough families. And I’m delighted to hear it.

If we are lucky enough that people trust us as individuals, companies / institutions we run, brands we market, products we make – then we need to take that trust seriously and place far greater value on it. Certainly not take it for granted.

We all make genuine mistakes and have all told lies – some bigger than others. I have been guilty of taking relationships of mine for granted in the past and I’d like to think I’ve taken responsibility for my errors of judgement, held my hands up and learnt my lessons.

As a society, and in business, I believe we need to place far greater emphasis on ensuring that our offer is what we say it is. And if we discover that it’s not – then be honest enough to say so, rather than covering it up. Doing it quickly, with empathy and sincerity – means you may just have a fighting chance of salvaging that relationship, even though it will change to a different one. The power base will shift, that’s for sure.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting all is bad with the world. Far from it.People are fundamentally good, straight-forward and forgiving. They can actually be very compassionate if someone makes a cock up, takes responsibility and apologises sincerely. Boris Johnson and how he has handled his many many cock ups (‘scuse the pun is a great example). People love him, forgive him – because he isn’t shy of pretending he is something he’s not. He overtly communicates his flaws and weaknesses – therefore no fraud, when he is caught misbehaving.

What they struggle to forgive is a cover up, a repeat offender (although Boris is a counter example they do), not taking responsibility – and pretty much never forgive a lack of remorse.

For many companies, this can be a challenge. I’ve long since had the belief that what someone does, is far more indicative of who they are than what they say, which is why i would always advise a client to take swift and decisive action as well as saying sorry.

To me honesty and trust has to be integral to company culture. Robust risk management protocols, crisis management plans and whistle blowing lines can be in place; however if leaders aren’t leading with honesty and place great expectation and consequence on their employees to do the same as part of everything they do, it simply will be a matter of time before the customer sees through the facade. And believe me, they will take their relationship to someone or something they can believe in.

Are trust, integrity or honesty one of your company values? If so, do you live them? If yes, then how do you measure it amongst your employees and is it integral to your performance management framework and reward strategy too? And are they asked to demonstrate the how they do it, rather than simply saying so? Until people start to see a consequence to them personally, will we really change behaviour?

For me, it’s not only personal relationships that have to be based on trust and integrity for them to have longevity, business ones do to – both with each other and our customers. And until we take it much more seriously than we do, I’m afraid more of the relationships we trust today may not exist tomorrow.

Thanks to Whitecap Consulting’s Associate Claire Ramus for sharing this blog with us.