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What we can learn from the world’s most trusted professions

When competence is fueled by good motives, it creates something everyone can believe in.

You can’t buy trust, you have to earn it. And you can lose it in an instant. But with some effort, you can also regain a person’s trust. 

This is imperative, because trust governs almost everything we do. In the modern age, trust is augmented by publicly shared reviews — you’re more likely to visit a shop with a 4.8-star rating on Google Maps than one with a 2.1-star rating. But when it comes to trusting another person directly, we’re often working with gut feelings and assumptions. 

Research company Ipsos quantifies trust in its Global Trustworthiness Index, which polls people in 31 countries to track which professions garner the most trust and which garner mostly skepticism. The results vary widely by country and show some interesting trends. 

Professions ranked by trust

In India, Sweden and Malaysia, members of the armed forces are one of the most trusted groups. But in Thailand, Chile and South Africa, they’re considered more untrustworthy. In Mexico, Colombia and Poland, ordinary people are considered to be among the most trustworthy; South Africa and Turkey are more skeptical. 

Politicians are the least trusted profession globally, with government officials and advertising executives close behind. But doctors, scientists and teachers have the highest marks for trustworthiness almost everywhere. 

How we choose who to trust can be broken down to four main elements, says Shalene Gupta, co-author of “The Power of Trust: How Companies Build It, Lose It, Regain It.” When it comes to trust, we’re evaluating:

  1. Competence: The skill or ability to get the job done. 
  2. Motives: The intention to do well by the people and groups you interact with.
  3. Means: The fairness of your processes and treatment of people in achieving its goals.
  4. Impact: The overall effect of your actions on other people, whether intended or unintended. 

“A very specific example is getting a haircut: It’s very hard for me to find a hairdresser, and I finally found one but she never gave me the haircut I wanted,” Gupta says. “I didn’t trust her motives, because after each haircut she’d say I looked great, but I’d have to go back to get it fixed.” Gupta ended up finding a new stylist who was able to cut her hair how she wanted.

We put a lot of trust in people who are doing a job when we’re vulnerable — such as experiencing a medical emergency or navigating the world as a 9-year-old. The most trusted professions around the globe require competence by nature, and “doctors, teachers, scientists all work in industries perceived to have motives bigger than themselves,” Gupta says. When they do their jobs well, they also have a positive impact on both the individual and society as a whole. 

“Trust is a license to operate.”

Shalene Gupta

In business, trust emerges when companies create products and services that work, have good intentions, treat people fairly, and take responsibility for all the impacts, whether intended or not.

“A major misconception about trust is that trust is about being perfect,” Gupta says. “Trust is a license to operate. If your business requires repeat customers, even if you have no local competitors, you have to be somewhat reasonable or people will avoid you. The moment anyone else comes in as competition who is more trustworthy, you’re out of luck.” 

The least-trusted professions as identified by Ipsos make sense when you consider their motives and impact. Politicians have to gather consensus, and as a result they make compromises that leave many people unsatisfied. Advertising executives are seen as being motivated solely by a desire to drive more sales for their clients. 

Narrowly speaking, when an advertising professional does a good job, only the client benefits. When a company sells more products, it’s the company that wins. But when businesses structure their operations so that what’s good for the client is also good for society — with motive, means and impact aligning to serve the greatest number of people — that’s something everyone can believe in.

Grace Dobush

Based in Berlin, Grace Dobush is the editor of the ReThink Quarterly. She has written for publications including Fortune, Wired, Handelsblatt and Quartz.