Better Understanding and Building Trust in Canada with Vanessa Eaton

Small Business Canada

Vanessa’s open-minded and empathetic nature along with her curiosity to know more and relentless pursuit of new ideas and results makes her a trusted partner to many long-standing Proof clients.  As Proof’s innovation lead, Vanessa is focused on collaborating with teams internally and clients to shape Proof’s approaches and services to meet clients’ evolving needs and solve business and organizational challenges.

Vanessa also co-leads Proof’s CanTrust Index research initiative.  She uses study insights and knowledge along with her extensive communications experience to counsel clients on how to build trust internally and externally with stakeholders to foster stronger relationships and better business results.

In her 20 years at Proof, Vanessa has held several positions including previously leading the Health & Wellness Practice where she specialized in team building and performance and servicing clients in both the pharmaceutical and not-for-profit health sectors to build and protect brand reputation.

Now in its 5th year, Proof’s CanTrust Index is a leading source of research and understanding of trust in Canada. We are committed to studying and measuring trust and sharing our findings because societies can’t function without it. Proof Inc. is the largest wholly Canadian-owned public relations, public affairs and events consulting firm in the country, operating in five offices with more than 200 people.

In 2020, we advanced our research and surveyed 2,500 Canadians through two studies in January as COVID-19 began its extraordinary disruption of our world. In addition to our benchmark questions, this year we examined our citizens’ disposition to trust, sense of national and local identities
as well as values to further inform our understanding of what makes Canada unique.

Trust is more critical now than it ever was given the current state of the world. Actions taken throughout the COVID-19 crisis and recovery will not only impact an organization’s reputation, but also its long-term survival. Canada’s COVID-19 pandemic recovery plan must include building trust. This is our moment of truth.

As Executive Vice President of Proof Inc., what can you tell us about the purpose of the Proof CanTrust Index study? And what does it hope to accomplish?

At Proof, we talk a lot about trust because we believe that trust is crucial for healthy societies, healthy economies and for one on one healthy relationships. Our goal is to promote a better understanding and building of trust in Canada. Trust has been an integral part of our agency culture for 25 years. As a public relations and communications agency that councils our clients, we also believe it’s our responsibility to understand trust and to help our clients build trust.

As a proud Canadian owned and operated public relations and communications company, we want to better understand the state of trust in Canada based on the unique factors that make up our country. We have a big newcomer population, we have regional businesses in Canada, and Quebec is a very distinct society – all of these different things make Canada very unique. We use this information to counsel our clients to contribute to a more trusting Canada.

Canadians have a high disposition to trust and hold very distinctive values, which inform our own evaluation of trust in others. Our citizens identify very highly as Canadian and share a sense of belonging to Canada. Trust is associated with identity. Our research found that the stronger the sense of belonging and identification as “Canadian”, the greater the willingness to trust.

What would you say was the most surprising aspect that the 2020 Proof CanTrust Index revealed?

What is surprising is, while we identify as Canadian – meaning we feel close to Canada which is very important for trust – Canadians do not feel that Canada is living up to important values. We measured people’s performance scores against important values. The overall values performance index score in our study was only 32%. The highest score was for Freedom (at only 51%) and scores for democracy, diversity and safety were lower than I would expect.

Many of the scores were the lowest among Boomers and older Canadians – these are Canadians with generally a higher propensity to trust. The low-value scores in many cases may be connected to our political opinions.  We might be starting to see is a tension point between feeling very close to our country and identifying as Canadians. We don’t necessarily feel that Canada is performing well in those core areas, so it will be interesting to watch how these scores change as we come out of this pandemic.

Our research shows steady trust in public services. Trust in the RCMP, for example, is at 61 percent, trust in our health care system is at 57 percent, and trust in the education system at 55 percent.

Would you say that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the results? And if so, in what area?

Our study was completed at the end of January when COVID-19 began its spread around the world. This study is a good benchmark of trust in Canada as it was done just prior to COVID-19 hitting our shores. Any crisis, especially of the size of this pandemic can act as a make or break point for leaders. The future trust will depend on how leaders behave, the decisions they make, and how they communicate today.

It will be interesting to evaluate in 6 months or a year from how trust changes in government, in our leaders, in CEOs – and in how Canadians evaluate Canada’s performance against important values like Safety, Health, Economic Security versus will we unite as a country and pull through and get stronger or will this create greater polarization in trust? In some cases, the trust may go up and in other cases, it may go down, so that would be interesting to see in terms of the impact of COVID.

Similarly, our research shows relatively high levels of trust in important services during this pandemic like hospitals at 66 percent, grocery stories at 58 percent and banks at 48 percent.

Among the survey results, it was revealed that Canadian’s trust in CEOs and senior managers has largely decreased from 55% in 2018 to 38% in current results. How would you explain this drastic change and what advice can you give to entrepreneurs and senior leaders to help increase the trust of their employees?

There are TWO forms of trust we need to consider.  One form is competence-based. This form of trust is built over time and is the expectation that the other party has the skills, ability, and knowledge to operate competently and effectively. The other form of trust is integrity-based. There is no question that both competency and integrity-based trust are critical, but integrity-based trust will be the key to management success during this pandemic. So, the reduced trust we’re seeing is likely a result of some bad corporate behavior over the past year related to poor decision making and lacking integrity. We can forgive incompetence, but a failure in integrity can be fatal for businesses.

Advice for senior leaders to help increase the trust of their employees:

  1. Walk the talk. Live your values. Our research showed that one of the biggest behaviors that can build trust in a corporation is if that corporation acts in accordance with their values. A company’s values are especially important in a time of crisis. Leaders should align their actions and communications with the company’s values as a way to build integrity-based trust across the organization. This is table stakes
  1. Middle managers are important and need to be trained in trust. Although senior leaders must always remember to walk their talk, employees are generally more inclined to trust their direct manager. Remember trust grows from a feeling a closeness. There is a proximity factor on all of this. So, senior business leaders should earn the trust of their middle managers and then empower them to build the trust capacity of your organization.
  2. Measure your trust. If you aren’t measuring trust, you don’t know if you are building it. Today’s leaders will need to learn how to examine their own behaviours and the structures that are embedded in their workplace that erode trust.  Accurate measurement of organizational and leadership trust should be part of every CEO’s performance report.

When it comes to building trust, what would you say are the main three aspects that Canadians look for in organizations and companies?

From an overall Canadian viewpoint, the top three actions that make a company or MORE trustworthy are: having shared values (or the company has values close to my own) (67%), creating local employment opportunities (66%), and leaders that communicate openly (64%).

On a final note, what can you tell us about the initiatives and projects that Proof Inc. has planned in the near future that can help organizations and companies gain a better relationship with their audience?

We are investing in deeper knowledge and expertise for trust-building. We want to help organizations get a reading of trust in their own organizations AND we want to share our knowledge with clients to help them create strong relationships with internal and external audiences and increase loyalty.

As a communications and public relations agency, we need to look at how we are helping our clients interact with their external audiences in terms of building brand trust. When you have greater trust in an organization, brand, or service, you will have greater loyalty and that will pay off from a reputation perspective as well.

We are also setting up our business up to be more focused on understanding the audience’s needs to help our clients better connect and engage audiences.

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