One of topics discussed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last month was how the gap in trust between elites and the general population is growing around the world.

The authoritative 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer indicates that while the best informed people around the world are trusting NGOs, businesses and government more, that’s not true for the world’s general population.

As a result, the gap in trust between the two groups is of record size – and highest in the U.S., where the difference is 20 points.

Edelman’s website reported the gap is “driven by income inequality and divergent expectations of the future,” adding: “While trust levels among informed publics are the highest ever in 16 years, trust is below 50 percent for the mass population in over sixty percent of the countries surveyed.

“This brings a number of potential consequences including the rise of populist politicians, the blocking of innovation and the onset of protectionism and nativism,” said Richard Edelman, president and CEO of the firm.

In effect, people in the general population are less inclined to trust government, business and civic leaders because they’re less inclined to see them as credible sources – and this has major leadership  implications around the world.

“We must get beyond ‘The Grand Illusion’ that the mass will continue to follow the elites,” said Edelman. “This ‘Illusion’ was predicated on the belief that the informed publics have access to superior information, their interests are interconnected and that becoming ‘an elite’ was open to all who work hard. But the democratization of information, high-profile revelations of greed and misbehavior, coupled with rising income inequality, have squashed those beliefs. The trust of the mass population can no longer be taken for granted.”

Significantly, government is generally accorded the least trust of any major socio-economic sector. For example, government is trusted less than business in 21 of 28 countries surveyed – with the largest gaps in countries such as South Africa (44 points), Mexico (44 points) and the U.S. (12 points).

The 2016 Trust Barometer also reported that when it comes to the characteristics most important in weighing the trustworthiness of CEOs, the criteria vary from region to region in the world.

But if you’re looking for the most important characteristic around the globe, go with honesty.

Honesty ranks first in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, and second in Latin America. That consensus aside, there were noticeable differences in each of the four regions.

As regarded to the leadership traits considered most important to foster trust in CEO’s, here are the top five criteria in each of the world’s four major regions (with percentages in parenthesis):

In North America, Honest (59%), Ethical (48%), Competent (26%), Transparent (26%) and Sincere (24%).

In Latin America, Ethical (47%), Honest (44%), Competent (36%), Visionary (34%) and Innovative (33%).

In Europe, Honest (53%), Competent (43%), Experienced (28%), Ethical (27%) and Transparent (27%).

In APAC, Honest (39%), Visionary (35%), Decisive (31%), Ethical (21), and Competent (26%).

NEXT ISSUE: The Inversion of Influence – As trust wanes, traditional sources of influence lose ground.


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