Linking Trust and Transparency

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In 2006, an Institute for Public Relations survey identifying priority research topics put trust right at the top of the list. And what produces trust?

The professional literature of our field suggests that transparency may be a key driver. Richard Edelman writes in the 2007 Edelman Trust Barometer that “continuous, transparent – and even passionate – communications is central to success” in today’s environment. The transparency/trust linkage seems to be everywhere – except in actual research.

Up steps Dr. Brad Rawlins of Brigham Young University, seeking to either prove or disprove the connection. He presented his research as a work in progress at the International Public Relations Research Conference, sponsored by the Institute for Public Relations, March 2007 in Miami.

Delving into academic literature on trust and transparency, Rawlins derived definitions of both terms, giving rise to a survey instrument. For trust, he adopted questions that measured willingness to trust an organization based on three key components: integrity (is the organization fair and just?); goodwill (does the organization care about me?); and competence (does the organization have the ability to do what it says it will?).

Rawlins’ questions to measure perceptions of organizational transparency stood on four components: information provided (is it truthful, substantial and reliable?); stakeholder participation (in identifying what sort of information they need and want); accountability (for what the organization does and says, including mistakes); and secretiveness (a “reverse item” measuring the opposite of openness and expected to show a negative correlation to transparency).

To test his methodology, Rawlins recruited the help of a large regional healthcare organization with 25,000 employees at 150 sites. Invitations went to 1,200 employees to participate in a web-based survey. More than 30% responded. The demographics of these respondents approximated the mix of the entire employee body.

Using simple correlations and regression analysis, Rawlins found that all three components of trust were valid predictors of employees willingness to trust the organization (with integrity and goodwill showing correlations above .80 on a scale where 1.0 represents perfect correlation). Similarly, the four components of transparency could be validated as strongly related to the overall concept, with information, participation and accountability being the strongest factors.

But to the main question of Rawlins’ research: Is there a provable link between transparency and trust?

In the minds of these healthcare employees, the answer is clearly yes. The survey results showed a correlation of .75. A number that high provides strong evidence that a transparent organization is trusted, and vice versa.

“From this study, one could conclude that as organizations become more transparent, they will also become more trusted,” says Rawlins. While the study involved only employees, and other stakeholders such as consumers and investors might yield different results, he believes that the statistical evidence is strong enough to suggest that the relationship will be found with other groups as well, even if the predictive power of the components varies.

For more information, or if your organization would like to participate in further research on trust and transparency with employees and other stakeholders, Dr. Rawlins may be contacted at brawlins@byu.edu.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Frank,

    Great insight.

    It is common sense that being clear and true about what you do or say leads to increased trust. But this statistical evidence surely helps to reinforce this belief.

    Furthermore this highlights the strategic role of Public Relations for transparency. May I underline that the participation of the stakeholders (which we have been dialoguing about in several recent posts) is proved to be also a decisive contributor to transparency and to the willingness to trust. This is surely another important argument for the need to adopt participatory decision making processes

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