Crisis and the Speed of Trust

October 3, 2018

Many of you will have seen the funny commercial series for an insurance provider with the tagline “Life comes at you fast.”  That always gets me thinking about the reaction that most people have when confronted with a critical moment. Suddenly, they are faced with a situation that impacts their organization’s ability to execute its strategy and impact its long-term reputation.

‘Whoa! That escalated quickly’ is something I hear a lot.

The need for speed

“I feel the need: the need for speed”

Tom Cruise as Maverick in Top Gun

At Kith we spend a lot of time talking about the importance of speed. Our belief is that understanding your mission and values plus clarity on chain of command equals speed.  This is one of the most critical elements of crisis success.

equation for crisis success

That desire to be fast, to fill the vacuum, is critical if companies are going to be successful. Read more about the equation for crisis success here.

However, speed is only possible when you have two other elements in place.  One is reputation and the other is trust. Without these, moving at speed in a crisis is fraught with difficulties.

I want to focus on trust here but it’s worth reminding ourselves that this goes hand-in-hand with reputation:

“reputation …. is what people expect us to do next. It’s their expectation of the quality and character of the next thing we produce or say.”

Seth Godin

Remember, in a crisis our reputation is what shapes people’s perception of what we are doing.  A positive reputation will give us support and leeway to respond. A negative reputation will do the opposite.

But how does this relate to trust?

The Speed of Trust

My thinking around trust has been shaped by Stephen Covey’s book, The Speed of Trust. In The Speed of Trust, Covey stresses that trust is the one thing that “if removed will destroy any and all organizations”.  This applies equally to friendships and stakeholder relations: if trust is broken, it has a significant impact on the long-term success of an individual or organization.

But if it’s developed and leveraged, it can create an unparalleled foundation for success and prosperity.

For me, trust and reputation are interlinked: I believe that a strong reputation anchored by trust breaks ties in most business contexts. By that, I mean that with all things being equal, when competitors go to market and price, product features, value and supply chain are equivalent, the organization with the highest levels of reputation and trust will be chosen.

Covey explains how organizations need to move from an old traditional business model of strategy x execution = results, to a new model (strategy x execution) + trust = results.

This means that it’s not enough for organizations to have fine strategies and great products which they bring to market smoothly and efficiently.  That’s simply execution. Without the addition of trust, they don’t have the ability to break ties, have a license to operate when something goes wrong, and can’t differentiate themselves from the alternative.

The addition of trust lets them be viewed as better than the alternative when other considerations are equal.

The Trust Matrix

In The Speed of Trust book, Covey talks about a trust matrix and I believe that this is wholly applicable to crisis response.

covey's trust matrix

Elements of trust from The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey 2006

Covey’s two main anchors of trust are the notion of character and competence.

  • Character is what we say or what we believe. This is the softer side of trust.
  • Competency directly relates to the things that we do and the actions that we take.

The combination of character and competence is trust.

To better understand this relationship, Covey has identified the key elements that combine to build character and competency.

Character is based on intent and integrity. The intent is the “why” of what you say or believe.  Integrity is the way you demonstrate what you say or believe or the “how”.

Competency is comprised of capability and results. Capability is simply doing what you say you’re going to do with knowledge and experience.  Meanwhile, results are the track record of your previous performance: how you have really done in the past. This the ‘proof is in the pudding’: you’ve actually delivered on what you’ve said you would do previously.

12 attributes of trust

In addition to these two core elements – character and competence – and their foundations, Covey’s model also included 12 individual attributes that create trust. I believe these attributes perfectly articulate where companies need to be strong to avert a crisis, or where weakness will lead to a pitfall.  These attributes create a crystal-clear roadmap for organizations who take the time to examine and apply them to their organizational needs and risk environment.

covey's trust matrix

12 attributes from The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey 2006

However, if neglected, these attributes can also lead to a situation that creates a critical moment.  Any shortfalls will also make the resultant crisis response difficult due to a lack of trust. For example:

  • Organizations that fail to create a caring environment and provide necessary safeguards for staff will create a significant risk around sexual harassment.
  • An organization that is dishonest and tries to cheat or disadvantage a set of stakeholders will create a reputation risk. You see this when companies break commitments made to staff or are caught defrauding partners or lying to customers.
  • A company with a pattern of industrial accidents exhibits a skills deficit and risks its credibility leading to questions of its overall competence.

Again, paying attention to each of these 12 attributes will provide an invaluable roadmap for organizations.

Five critical takeaways

Taken as a whole, Covey’s excellent work gives us five key takeaways for communications executives.

  • Firstly, examine those 12 attributes, identify the ones that are most relevant to your company and your industry then address any shortfalls and build on your strengths.
  • Secondly, identify any information gaps you might have that relate to these attributes so that you can understand the associated risks.
  • Thirdly, mitigate those risks: understand how improved information flow, improved question asking or improved execution can help mitigate those risks.
  • Fourthly, develop a response plan for the most significant risks arising from any shortfall in those 12 attributes, and
  • Fifthly, understand how you’re going to respond. How do you align your response with your mission and values, who’s going to be in the room and what’s your chain of command? Understand these to allow you to execute quickly.   And then train and exercise to make sure that your team is ready for these different types of events.

This final point is key.

We train and prepare many organizations for external events and know that planning without training is ineffective. We want to make sure that our clients are prepared for the risks they face and develop their character, competency and ultimately enhance their trustworthiness.

I hope you take those five key takeaways, apply them to your organization and ask yourself how prepared and strong you are. I’m absolutely convinced that this will prepare you for any critical moments your organization faces.

That way, when life comes at you fast, you’re faster.

Filed under: Crisis Planning


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.