How to trust a leader? Some urgent ideas for Scott Morrison that can start today

How to trust a leader? Some urgent ideas for Scott Morrison that can start today

A new Roy Morgan polls has found New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has the highest ‘net trust score’ of political leaders, while Australian PM Scott Morrison has a significant ‘net distrust score’.

At this time, trust in leadership has never been more important. For Morrison, who has finally stepped up his communication and press conference frequency in the past few days, his trust reserves have been significant depleted — notably during the bushfire crisis, but more recently for some flippant remarks made regarding the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic, including just last Friday declaring that he would be “going to the footy” that weekend.

Trust at this point can be a matter of life and death: it can determine how people will respond to urgent health messages, whether people will heed the call to stay home and away from crowds. Trust will also limit how people’s fear and uncertainty manifests — for example, whether or not they’ll resort to hoard shopping in supermarkets.

This Roy Morgan poll saw women dominating the ‘Net Trust Scores’, taking out four of the tip five spots with: Ardern, Opposition Leader in the Senate Penny Wong, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and former ALP Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews was the only male to feature in the top five.

The survey results were released Thursday, with the research conducted via a snap survey of 974 Australians over the previous two days.

For Ardern, her ‘net trust score’ means the trust felt towards her outweighs the ‘distrust’.

For Morrison, plenty of Australian trust him — he received more mentions as a ‘trusted’ leader than any other. But the problem is that far more Australians ‘distrust’ him, which led to his poor ‘net distrust score’, alongside President Donald Trump, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and former National Party Leader Barnaby Joyce.

At this point, it’s not enough to get a segment of the population trusting you if a far greater proportion simply don’t.

So what drives trust in leadership, especially at this point in time? There are some cues in the four women at the top of the Roy Morgan list, mainly regarding their communication style, ability to stay on message and the empathy they’re also able to express in their words.

Ardern has long been known for her empathy and ability to deliver strong and almost poetic lines that are remembered and featured. She’s been fast and decisive in her response to the Covid-19 pandemic, taking measures well ahead of Australia, and communicating constantly.

The real enemy is complacency


Morrison received some praise for his “stop it” speech to those raiding supermarket supplies, but we needed a more empathetic approach, along with clear figures and messaging regarding why Australians don’t need to be concerned about shortages of food and other essential items.

Instead, Morrison’s approach was to create an enemy out of the hoarders, at a time when the enemy should really be complacency.

There are no terrorists to blame and to unite again in this pandemic, there is no ‘axis of evil’ or bad guys. Instead, there is a virus and a global fight to come up with effective treatment options and a vaccine — but more importantly and immediately, to significantly slow the rapidly rising spread.

Scott Morrison has an opportunity to turn trust in his leadership around very, very quickly.

He needs to immediately establish a daily briefing, at a set time each day, giving Australians the chance to tune in as needed. Right now, these press briefings are ad hoc, they’re issued with short notice to the media, and even seeing the mention that they are about to occur can immediately create panic regarding what will happen next. A better option would be to have Australians anticipating these briefings will be happening, at the same time, every day.

He needs to be open and brutally honest about the facts regarding the spread of the virus in Australia, including where the cases are, how fast they’re spreading and even forecasts on what could occur next. These messages need to be delivered clearly and honestly. As Kirstin Ferguson wrote for Women’s Agenda on leadership in a crisis (and speaking generally), extreme transparency and fearless honesty will increase trust and reduce panic. “Traditional ways of seeking calm will not apply.”

He needs to be open and share the full details when comparing Australia’s response to the virus to that of other countries. This week Morrison offered Singapore as an example when saying why Australia was moving to keep schools open. But we did not get the full picture: notably that Singapore has strict temperature monitoring in place and has extensive tracking on residents, meaning they can quickly and effectively undertake contact analysis.

He needs to be able to quickly change course if necessary, without fearing the political fallout. He’s taken a huge gamble on keeping schools open, leaving Australians little option but to trust his response to advice received from health officials. If this turns out to be the wrong decision, he must pivot immediately and ignore how this makes him look personally.

He needs to get comfortable with empathy, but take it beyond his own personal experience. We’re now well acquainted with Morrison referring to his daughters, his wife Jenny, his friend the plumber, his mates, his concerns as a parent and his experience as the ‘every day Australian’. We’ve heard it before and it’s not enough for this crisis. Morrison needs to work on his communication to deliver more empathy in his messaging: to share his understanding on why Australians are concerned, and how this anxiety and concern manifests across different segments of the population.

Morrison also has an opportunity to better humanise the tragedy. It’s will be upsetting and painful, but we need to hear the names and personal stories of the Australians who are dying — just as we did during the bushfire crisis, and just as we’ve done during terrorist incidents overseas. The sad truth is the names may mount so quickly that saying anything of substance about each individual may quickly prove impossible. But Morrison can lead by expressing his grief, even selecting individual stories each time and reminding us all why we’re being asked to participate in the measures that are being asked of us.

Now is the time to step up the trust in leadership by giving us leadership we can trust in. There has been some progress made in the past few days, but we need huge improvements to put our best response forward as the cases inevitably escalate.

Hope is a great resource we can draw on to help fight the challenge ahead. But hope is not a strategy. Brilliant leadership is.

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