Professionals provide specialist knowledge in managing client needs, desires and uncertainty; however, quality professional advice requires thoughtful ongoing communication and understanding that is built on trust and empathy, underpinned by an ethical framework.

It’s worthwhile, therefore, to examine how to build and maintain such trust.

A few years ago, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) found that a third of Australians prefer piece-by-piece or scaled advice rather than advice that is more comprehensive. Why is this? It might have something to do with trust.

In the early stages of a client-professional relationship, it is critical to build rapport and trust. According to Melanie Belcher and Linda Jones’ analysis of trust in a nursing context, developing trust has a major influence whether you can obtain accurate information from a client and whether they accept care and treatment from healthcare professionals.

The conditions that need to be present for trust to develop involve “confidence, self-reliance, good communication, knowledge, respect, honesty and commitment”, according to healthcare researchers Summer Williams, Kelly Haskard and Robin DiMatteo. They argue that emphatic communication between physician and patient is essential during treatment, as it provides a socio-emotional connection that is vital for the relationship. Empathy, they say, is “an active process” that involves “walking in their shoes” or viewing life “from their point of view” and is typically expressed through words, actions and gestures of comfort and may include “eye contact”, “leaning toward” and “tone of voice”. Empathy, they say, improves “feelings or relatedness” and “information exchange” and even leads to “fewer malpractice claims”.

Belcher also states that being “willing to care” or helping someone else, “being interested in others”, feelings of comfort with a client, “being honest”, having “time to listen” to client problems and having a social conversation with a client are all vital components in building rapport, communication and trust.

Behavioural ethics and professionalism

When leaders and professionals engage in unethical behaviour, as evidenced by scandals and malpractice, they erode our trust. How do we encourage more ethical behaviour when resolving ethical dilemmas? Possibly by ensuring there is enough time for proper reflection. “The frantic pace of many of our lives leads us to rely on” fast thinking, which may not be suited to facing ethical dilemmas, which may require a slower thought process, Dolly Chugh wrote in a paper published in Social Justice Research. Max Bazerman and Francesco Gino quote Mead et al (2009), stating that “cognitively busy study participants were more likely to behave unethically than less cognitively busy study participants” as “it takes cognitive energy to be reflective enough” and resist the “impulse to cheat”.

Also, when someone has a vested interest, they may be incapable, cognitively, of making “an unbiased or independent assessment”, as evidenced by decades of social psychology research and numerous past scandals such as Enron, HIH, Bernie Madoff, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the global financial crisis (in which securitisation of junk debt was repackaged and sold as AAA-rated fixed interest). The notion of independence quickly becomes a farce in the name of pursuing profit.

Regarding intentional dishonesty, well-known experiments (such as Milgram’s experiment and the Stanford prison experiment) show “morality is dynamic and malleable” and “situational influences” produce unethical behaviour, Bazerman and Gino state. So some individuals, even when they have “moral traits” or “value morality”, may not behave consistently across various situations and “may cross ethical boundaries under situational pressures”, they state.

What can be done about this? As this is a complex problem, mitigating it probably requires a multi-disciplined approach. For example, raising education standards in financial planning and adhering to a code of ethics/conduct are important steps in developing and nurturing consumer trust, but more needs to be done. Intervention by our “institutions, organisations and governments” may help us “change the way we see and react to problems”, Bazerman and Gino argue.


Investigating professionalism by exploring behavioural ethics and the basis of good client-professional relationships is a complex task. A multi-disciplined approach will assist in nurturing and developing good client-professional relationships, where conflicts of interest are managed sufficiently and checks and balances are in place to help encourage and foster ethical decision-making.

In a new series, financial planning students share the wisdom from their studies that applies to professionalism and ethics. This is an abridged version of an essay Gregor Murton wrote for his master’s degree in financial planning final subject at Griffith University.

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