With Doubters Everywhere, How Should You Lead?

The public's faith in institutions is eroding, which has consequences for your association. But there are a few ways to lead well in a skeptical environment.

Associations are, among other things, in the business of selling trust. Trust in the certifications it delivers to its members. Trust in the authority of its products and services. Trust in the quality of its research.

Problem is, trust isn’t what it used to be.

Anecdotal evidence of that is as close as your social media feeds and TV screens. Every day seems to deliver a cycle of an attention-grabbing Event, followed by hours of analysis of the Event, followed by a debunking of the Event, which produces analysis of the debunking in which the debunker may or may not be a Russian bot. By the time an authoritative news outlet or rumor-busting site arrives on the scene with verified facts about the Event, everybody’s dug into their camps. And what does “authoritative” mean, anyway, bub?

The facts—if you trust them—bolster the notion that trust is eroding. According to Edelman, Americans’ trust in non-government organizations, business, media, and government slipped a collective 37 points between 2017 and 2018 [PDF]. Earlier this year the Pew Research Center reported that the percentage of Americans who trust government all or most of the time is at 17 percent, the lowest it’s been since the Eisenhower administration. People have more faith in the latest Sharknado movie.

This state of affairs is unlikely to improve as the 2020 election season kicks into gear. And that will likely have an impact on the association community at large, especially the trade organizations that are politically active. So it’s worth taking the time now to think about what your association can do to build trust. Even if you’re not the target of fake-news accusations or drawn into a partisan fight, you’re a representative for the value of your association’s industry.

New opportunities are arising to present associations as trusted sources.

The ASAE Foundation’s ForesightWorks research program, which monitors “change drivers” that affect the world in general and associations in particular, has a few thoughts on what can build and sustain trust in the current environment. The publications have some granular points on what that can involve, but the recommendations revolve around three general themes:

Be inclusive. It’s easy to distrust a single person’s statement about something because it’s easy to analyze, question, and misinterpret a single person’s understanding about something. But when a group speaks, it carries more authority. So consider moving away from the kind of top-down decisionmaking that gives people an excuse to argue an association rules by fiat. “Have clear and transparent decision-making processes especially with boards, delegate assemblies, and sensitive committees such as government affairs and nominations,” says the ForesightWorks research. It adds: “Give credit to members who help develop programs or make key decisions. Members trust colleagues.”

Protect your brand. In situations where misinformation about your industry is spreading, it will be critical for your association to get ahead of the conversation and advocate for your members. For associations that have credential and certification programs, now is the time to explain their value. “New opportunities are arising to present associations as trusted sources,” says the ForesightWorks research. “As credentials (a tested or demonstrated level of knowledge) challenge expertise (a perceived mastery of knowledge), associations and other organizations can take the lead in establishing standards for credentials.” If you don’t have a credentialing or certification program, now might be the time to discuss launching one.

Communicate with care. In the 2017 documentary Obit, about obituary writers at The New York Times, there’s a bit where a reporter recalls working with a young reporter who kept getting into trouble with errors that required corrections. The old hand pointed out the problem: The young writer’s stories had too many facts in them. It’s a funny line, but it’s also not a joke—the more information you send out to members and the public, the more information you send out that runs the risk of being incorrect or misread. So speak out only where you know you’re on solid footing.

“Know when you must take a stand and when it is wise to be silent,” says ForesightWorks. “Be vocal where it matters; don’t take positions where members don’t want or need you to weigh in.” And double-check the facts you put out there. “Be meticulous about information you use and share. Source and validate the information you distribute through your communication channels. Use credible methodologies in your own industry research.”

Many people are in a skeptical, if not cynical place these days. But confidence in the work you do on behalf of members can go a way’s toward fending off the worst of that attitude.

What has your association done to help build trust in your work? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Paperkites/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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