Canadians trust CEOs more than politicians—but not much more

A new survey finds Canadian voters unsure about the ethics of the nation’s C-suites

 
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left and Loblaw Cos. executive chairman and President Galen G. Weston.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left and Loblaw Cos. executive chairman and President Galen G. Weston. Politicians fare worse than CEOs in public trust, but Canada’s C-suites have little to feel smug about, a new survey finds. (Thomas Koehler/Photothek/Getty; Stan Behal/Toronto Sun/QMI)

Canadians mistrust politicians at about twice the rate at which they mistrust CEOs. Is that good news or bad news for Canada’s business leaders?

The numbers come from a new national survey*, conducted by the Gandalf Group on behalf of the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre (of which I’m Director) .

The survey, which we believe to be the first of its kind, asked Canadian voters their views on a range of issues related to the ethics of political leadership. The full results of the study will be released on Wednesday, November 5, at a half-day event I’m hosting at Ryerson University, called The Ethics of Political Leadership.

Our goal in doing the survey was to go beyond the facile truism that voters don’t trust politicians. We wanted to know more. Which ethical issues do Canadians believe to be the most serious? Do Canadians have greater faith in their federal, provincial, or municipal leaders? How common do Canadians think various ethical infractions are? How much do Canadians (mis)trust politicians, compared to other members of professions, such as CEOs, judges, and journalists? It turns out that politicians don’t fare well: 50% of respondents said that they “do not trust” politicians, whereas only 25% said the same of CEOs. Journalists, and especially judges, fare much better.

Chart showing public trust levels in politicians vs. CEOs

How happy should Canada’s business leaders be about the fact that they fare so much better than our widely-mistrusted politicians? The truth is that CEOs should be worried. Only 22% of Canadians say they trust CEOs—compared to the 36% who trust public servants and the 65% who trust judges. The numbers put CEOs just below the middle of the pack, among the 9 professions we asked about. That’s higher than some of us might have expected, surely, but it’s also much lower than we might have hoped for. The world of business, after all, runs on trust. Contracts and warrantees only go so far: without trust, markets suffer.

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For that matter, CEOs should be worried too about the low numbers for politicians. Not only is a lack of trust in politicians bad for democracy: it’s bad for business. How effective can politicians be in effecting smart regulations, smart tax policies, and smart public policy frameworks for economic development if they don’t have the trust of the electorate?

Canadian democracy is in the midst of a crisis of trust. CEOs may be more widely trusted than politicians are, but they have little reason to celebrate overall.

Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and founding co-editor of the Business Ethics Journal Review.

*The survey was conducted between Oct 17 and 22, 2014, using an online panel. A nationally representative sample of n=1039 was surveyed. More information about the survey is available on the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre site.

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