Building trust in insurance – practical steps we can all take


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We all know that trust is important in a business sector like insurance. The question we should then ask ourselves is: what are we doing to protect it and to nurture it?

Trust doesn’t look after itself. You have to pay it attention and according to a 2017 survey by advisory firm PwC, insurance needs to do more. Its survey of global insurance chief executives found that 28% were “extremely concerned” that lack of trust will affect their firm’s growth. And 72% felt it is harder to sustain trust in a digitised market. That’s a lot of sleep being lost amongst senior insurance executives.

Professionalism should go a long way towards building that trust, yet so much of what we learn as professionals is around the technical side of insurance, with little attention given to trust building competences like ethics. How many insurance people spend more than one hour a year on ethics training? Not many I suspect, and even then, often only because regulations require it.

And while insurance firms are full of good people, who see ethics as a good thing and point to their codes of ethics to affirm this, I suspect that few firms devote much time to the practicalities of ethics, such as integrating it into planning, performance and oversight. 

Setting a Personal Example

So what can you do on trust to help all of those insurance executives get more sleep at night? The most common response tends to revolve around setting a personal example. In other words, remembering to bring your ethical values into play more often, when tricky decisions land on your work desk.

And setting that personal example is great: after all, why should someone do what you’re asking of them in relation to trust, if you’re not prepared to do that same thing yourself, and be seen to be doing it? The problem however is that while setting that personal example is important, sadly, on its own, it’s not enough.

Research has found that 80% of UK workers (across all sectors) did not think their manager sets a good moral example. And other research found that only 37% of employees trusted their organisation’s senior management.

Do such findings reflect the position in insurance? It appears so, given the findings of a 2008 ethics survey by the UK’s Chartered Insurance Institute, which found that middle managers were looking to senior executives for setting and delivering the ethical tone for their firm, but were finding a material shortfall in actual performance.

So why is this the case? Clearly, a great many of those executives who want to set a personal example on ethics and trust are just not getting their message across. This could be down that message being too weak or unstructured in the first place, or it being drowned out in the noise of other decisions. It’s equally likely that their personal example is not being sustained long enough to be picked up as something significant, or it may appear irrelevant in relation to the ethical problems that many people in the firm are actually facing.

Yet at the same time, you can’t just ignore the idea of setting of a personal example: after all, if you don’t set one, others will take your cue and not bother either. So what else can you do?

Leadership on Ethics

The clue lies, as the saying goes, in ‘doing what it says on the tin’: leaders have to show leadership on ethics. Just as insurance executives have to show leadership on the strategy of their firm, on the delivery of its plans and operations, they have to show leadership on the ethics of their business as well.

And there’s a subtle point to watch out for here. They need to show leadership not on their personal ethics, but on the ethics of their business. Of course, there’s likely to be a lot of overlap between the two, yet the emphasis is different: the former is about ‘me’, while the latter is about ‘us’. In other words, you’re leading on the ethical values, on the ethical risks, on the ethical opportunities that matter to your firm. It is after all what employees, customer and investors expect.

So how do you show leadership on the ethics of your business?

The need for senior executives to give direction to their firm’s performance on trust and ethics was underlined in a 2016 survey in the Harvard Business Review, in which senior executives were asked to rate a set of leadership competencies. The one they chose above all others, by a clear margin, was ‘high ethical and moral standards’. What this says is that people who want to become leaders in sectors like insurance need to understand ethics and they need to understand how to show leadership on ethics.

The Leader as Coach

So where should you start? What more is needed beyond that personal example we mentioned earlier? Well, leadership on ethics involves adopting a pretty similar role to that of a coach. The firm is your team and the aim is for them to score ethical outcomes. And if you think about it, this makes sense, for most of the decisions in your firm are not made by people at the top, but by the many people employed to deliver the outcomes that will achieve its business objectives.

So Step 1 in leadership on ethics is to learn the language of ethics, for you can’t get your message across if you don’t have the language with which to express it. That language needs to be more than just exhortations to ‘do the right thing’ – you need to be more specific and talk about the ethical issues that matter to your firm and the decisions its people are taking.

And you need to practice using that language, in meetings, at informal get-togethers, perhaps even at a conference or two. There’s no point learning about, say, privacy or conflicts of interest and then leaving the first time you talk about them in any depth to an interview with a reporter looking for a story.

Once you’ve learnt the language of ethics, then comes Step 2, and this involves crafting an ethical vision for your firm, for you can’t lead on ethics unless you know where you want to go. This however can be quite a challenging step, for in crafting that ethical vision, you need to reflect on the challenges the people in your firm are facing when trying to ‘do the right thing’ in the everyday decisions that they take. After all, what’s the point in crafting an ethical vision if it doesn’t resonate with the everyday experiences of the people in your firm?

Step 3 is very much a ‘roll your sleeves up’ one, for it involves going out and shaping the way in which people in your firm are tackling some of those challenging decisions.  And this doesn’t just mean issuing new procedures or guidelines. It means addressing the ethical culture in your firm: in other words, ‘how things get done round here’.

Your firm’s ethical culture needs to be in sync with your ethical vision. If it’s not, then your ethical vision will always play second fiddle. There’s a saying: “culture beats strategy, every time”. So, for your firm to earn more trust, you need to look at what your firm sees as important and how it encourages employees to be successful. Are these going to support your ethical vision?

Step 4 might surprise you. It’s about removing the ethical hurdles that get in the way of your people making the right decisions, because they’ll need help from time to time taking some tough decisions in line with your ethical vision.

So you need to take a hard look at how your firm organises its business. Are there management processes that get in the way of your people making more ethical decisions? I often find that insurance firms want to be more ethical, but they then struggle in the face of systems and processes that limit their options.

And with Step 5, we bring in that person example, because if you don’t set an example, then people will take the cue and not bother either. Of course, there’s no point setting an example unless you’re going to let people know about it. You need to spread the message; tell them the good news, acknowledge the bad news.

So what do these five steps add up to?  Well, look at it this way. We can look around our firms and know that they’re full of good people, prepared to ‘do the right thing’ and that’s great, but it’s not enough. Remember that most misconduct in corporate settings is not down to bad people doing bad things, but down to good people making bad choices, often when under pressure  or when allowed to get away with excuses.

Leadership on ethics tackles those causes of misconduct head on. It sets the ethical vision and builds the means by which to achieve it. And it’s that vision and the willingness to roll up one’s sleeves and deliver it that distinguishes a true leader from someone who is just good at managing things.

The ‘five most dangerous words in business’

Let’s look now at trust and ethics from a different perspective. Assume that you’re working in an insurance firm and you want to do your bit to support the efforts being made by its leadership team for the firm to be more consistent and more confident in the ethics of the decisions being made. What can you do to help?

This is important. Showing leadership on ethics is not something that has to be confined to those at the top of the firm. After all, we all regularly face decisions that present us with a choice about whether to ‘do the right thing’ or not.

One starting point could be when you hear a colleague saying something that sets off an ‘ethical warning light’ in your head. Imagine this scene: a colleague is explaining an unusual approach  to boosting new business. You and the other people listening to your colleague go a bit quiet, and sensing that some explanation is needed, your colleague offers these words in reassurance: “It’s not a problem; everyone else is doing it”.

The ‘ethical warning light’ going off in your head is justified, for your colleague has just uttered what the famous investor and insurance chief executive Warren Buffett has called the five most dangerous words in business: “everyone else is doing it”.

Now, you may be tempted to think of phrases like ‘everyone else is doing it’ as a form of pragmatic response to a difficult situation. They are not: they’re attempts at reshaping a decision so as to make it appear less bad than it really was. 

Recognising Rationalisations

Such phrases are called ‘rationalisations’ and here are four others that you may have come across.

  • ·         there are people who deny responsibility – they say things like “I had no choice! There was no other option.”
  • ·         there are people who deny there’s any loss, and they say things like “No one will really be worse off”. And “does it really matter?”
  • ·         there are people who try to appeal to other loyalties – “the company expected this from me”
  • ·         there is the claim to entitlement – “I’ve worked hard on this deal; I deserve to win it”.

When you hear such excuses, you should be prepared to respond to your colleague, asking them to explain themselves, asking them to think again, perhaps challenging them about the ethics of their decision. 

Calling out rationalisations like these is a small, individual step that each of us can take to show leadership on ethics. You may not be in a position to actually stop your colleague doing what they want to do, but you can signal to the people around you that not everyone thinks that way, that there are choices open to everyone in how such situations are handled.

One technique that can be pretty effective in calling out such rationalisations is to present your response as two distinct choices. One choice emphasises the ethical side to the situation, while the other choice emphasises the unethical approach your colleague is talking about. And by emphasise, I mean being pretty blunt and emphatic about those choices. Research shows that framing the ethics of a situation into two distinct choices makes it more likely that the ethical choice will be recognised as the one to be taken.


As insurance professionals, we are expected to set an example on upholding the ethics of our profession. That, after all, is what professionalism means; it is what distinguishes us from people who just know a lot. So where can we start?

Today, you could set a personal example in how you handle a tricky decision; or you might have a go at talking about an ethical risk associated with the part of the insurance firm you work in; or you might decide to call out a rationalisation that a colleague is using to justify a strange course of action.

Go on, give it a go. It’s easier than you think.