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It’s hard to believe the government and media could sink any lower in the court of public opinion than they have the last decade. Yet recent indicators show they’ve nearly hit rock bottom.

According to a recent Gallup poll, America’s top concern is not the economy, immigration, or crime. It’s not even inflation, despite soaring prices that continue to pinch pocketbooks. Among those surveyed, the biggest problem facing our country is government.

Edelman, a global public affairs firm, revealed a similar finding in their annual report on trust.  Government, they wrote “is viewed as unethical and incompetent.”

The media hasn’t fared much better, with just seven percent of Americans having "a great deal" of trust and confidence in the media, and 27% having "a fair amount” according to Gallup.

Institutions that are necessary for a thriving democracy are cratering in an environment of disinformation, de-platforming, and divisiveness.

Business is a rare bright spot. Respondents to the Edelman survey trusted their employer 25 points more than they trusted government or elected officials. In fact, business was seen as more competent by 54 points and more ethical by 30.

In many ways, this makes sense. Private enterprise has an incentive to provide products and services that add value to all peoples’ lives and to course correct when customers or employees are dissatisfied. Anyone who’s waited in line at the DMV, tried to collect unemployment benefits or received a pat down from the TSA knows this is not the case with government.  

It also helps explain why people increasingly want business leaders to weigh in on major issues. They see political leaders as hopelessly divided and incapable, so they look to the nearest adult in the room to fill the void.

Yet CEOs who wade into the choppy sea of social and cultural issues do so at their own peril.

Numerous recent cases underscore this point. Disney’s Bob Chapek learned that the hard way when he caved in to pressure from employees to take a position on Florida’s bill parental rights in education bill. Major League Baseball faced the wrath of legions of baseball fans when they pulled the All-Star game out of Atlanta over Georgia’s election laws. Target was heavily criticized over its transgender bathroom policy.

So how can today’s CEO maintain trust with the public and employees without alienating half of them? And how can they satisfy stakeholders, while abiding by their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders?

One solution is to start from within. That is, help employees understand the nature of the business, from what it delivers, to how it delivers, to who it is being delivered to. Ensure they understand not only why their own job matters, but why every job in the organization matters, whether it’s the shipping technician, the forklift operator, or the accounting coordinator. Educate them on profitability and barriers to growth such as regulatory red tape or hostile tax policy.

In other words, show them the value of free enterprise principles.  

According to research done by the Frontier Center, a market research organization, business leaders who are actively engaged in the promotion of free enterprise see benefits to their business performance and their own peace of mind.

Understandably, many business leaders may be reluctant to take this approach. Lack of resources, time constraints, concerns about employee or board pushback, or that their efforts will be viewed as political are all valid reasons for refraining from engaging in free enterprise fundamentals with workers.

Yet Frontier learned that business leaders who encouraged an understanding of free markets did so because they saw benefits in other realms. Namely, their business outcomes, the employee’s personal flourishing, their own individual happiness and service to their country.

A full 100% of leaders said developing the critical thinking that resulted was a key motivating factor in sharing these concepts. Among the other benefits are that employees had a “a much-needed understanding about the rules and regulations employees encounter every day,” which “puts employer and employee on the same page when business decisions need to be made, affirming trust that goes in both directions.”

That trust may cause employees to reconsider whether their CEO should become a culture warrior or instead a champion of what he or she knows best – running a profitable, mission-driven organization. Even more importantly, it instills the dignity of work, an understanding that everyone has value, and that free enterprise allows even the poorest among us to prosper.

While our institutions may be broken, business leaders have an opportunity and an obligation to help keep the American dream alive and well.

John Tillman is CEO of the American Culture Project. 

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