Integrity will prevail over trust lost

By Christine Keong

Occupational safety is and has always been a top priority for workers in high-risk organisations where they are more vulnerable to risks including physical harm and injury. Workplaces do set out safety protocols and measures but essentially, they need to be followed to be effective and to ensure that accidents are minimal. In other words, workers have to be committed to their own safety by adhering to the safety protocols and measures that have been set out. This commitment and genuine intention towards their own safety is achieved by gaining their trust; Workers need to trust and have confidence that the organisation has their interests and safety as a number one concern. However many organisations have found that trust is difficult to earn but distrust is also just as easily gained. Therefore risk communicators need to tread carefully by having a knowledge of the factors that can help them gain, maintain and then strengthen that trust but also know about the factors contributing to a loss of trust.

Open communication between both management and workers has long been the  recommended strategy to gain, maintain and build trust. It involves a two-way forum where risk communicators present their current safety processes to workers and by also listening and being receptive to the occupational safety concerns of workers, without shifting the blame to them for any safety accidents that have occurred.

While open communication can be effective in gaining trust, it can also backfire as Conchie and Burns (2008) have found in their study. A high-risk organisation that practiced open communication saw a lost in trust when negative risk information was given to workers. This trust asymmetry effect can be attributed to a “negativity bias” where individuals are more affected by negative information than positive information due to a greater confidence that the negative information is true. The trust asymmetry effect is further amplified through a “confirmatory bias” when workers already have existing impressions or opinions of an organisation. Even if positive risk information is released, workers who already possess a distrust of the organisation they are working for will still distrust the positive information given.

That said, the authors found that even though trust was reduced in face of negative risk information, a lack of open communication created even more and stronger distrust among workers. Thus, although trust may potentially be lost when negative risk information is given, open communication still needs to be practiced. Organisations should focus on the circumstances of the negative information and then propose steps to handle and deal with those circumstances that have arisen.

So while trust seems easily lost, organisations should not be deterred from pursuing good and open communication with their workers. Essentially workers are human who will respect integrity and trust can be earned again.  Like Eudora Welty, a 1973 Pulitzer Prize Winner once said,

Integrity can be neither lost nor concealed nor faked nor quenched nor artificially come by nor outlived, nor, I believe, in the long run, denied.

Reference: Conchie, S. M., & Burns, C. (2008). Trust and risk communication in high-risk organizations: A test of principles from social risk research. Risk Analysis, 28(1), 141-149. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.2008.01006.x


3 comments so far

  1. yveee on

    Hi Christine,

    Thank you for your post 🙂

    To be honest, all the discussion about risk communication and the issue of trust in our lectures and presentations in the last 2 weeks left me feeling somewhat depressed. It seemed to me that it was incredibly hard to gain and maintain trust when you have the awesome task of communicating risk to the public (especially if I was a government official!). I wondered, “Can trust ever be earned again after it is lost? How then should we do this?”

    Your post gave me reassurance that trust can be regained even if it is lost due to negative information – by being open and honest. I can see why it is certainly better to be honest than to lie or tell half-truths to the public to try and cover up negative information. In the long-term, those who maintain integrity and transparency will keep people’s trust – not the ones who tell people only what they hope/want to hear.

    Thank you again for that uplifting post! 🙂

    • Christine on

      Hi Yvette,

      The reality is that risk communication is such a large and challenging task at hand that risk communicators can easily be discouraged.

      Not everyone is going to accept information given to them, even the positive ones as the paper has found, so it’s about how we pursue the audience with diligence and upheld integrity.

      As long as we focus on what we need to do – assess the risks then communicate it in the best way we can, without losing accuracy and being open even if it means we may lost trust, we can win the audience’s recognition and respect.

  2. ankevaneekelen on

    Hi Christine,

    It seems that high-risk organisations, which pursue open communication and run the chance of this strategy to backfire on them, get caught in a downward spiral.

    You would hope that evidence of immediate action of the organisation to address the issue of negative risk communication, would restore the desired trust by their employees again.

    I wonder whether there are examples of a downward spiral that could be reversed in an upward/positive direction again. As a result, the organisation would then have been credited for their efforts in minimising further risks associated with the negative risk communication?

    Thanks for your interesting blog,
    Anke van Eekelen

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