It’s tempting to focus on what divides us. Politics, religion, culture: These can often keep us focused on how we see the world differently. The reality is, this isn’t a problem by itself. We do have differences. They just don’t have to define us, which is increasingly too often the case.

Division will do nothing to build equal access to a growing economy. It won’t help sustain our environment, nor will it help society rally together to address our greatest challenges. There’s enough pessimism in the world.

We need a different way to think about our common humanity. After all, optimism is the only free stimulus in this world. If we really want to build a better future, we need a new foundation.

Consider this: Our world view is shaped by our personal experiences — how we behave as consumers, how we work, how we live, and how we learn. This is what unites us.

Each of our experiences is a powerful building block in the story of our lives. We are not simply passive observers. We can choose to be a character in someone else’s story, or we can be the hero of our own. Many of us share the common experience of being hungry young dreamers. As kids growing up, it was clear that success was a choice. Nobody handed us anything. Every fight and fall made us stronger, sharpening our will and resolve.

Regardless of what happened in our past, we can actively define our future experiences. As American author Will Durrant wrote, paraphrasing Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” This is more than philosophy. We are all part of an active process. It is emotional and it’s all built on trust, the ultimate human currency.


The Trust Gap

When trust is there, we can take giant strides, turning our greatest challenges into our biggest opportunities. When it’s not, the needle gets stuck. Small hurdles become insurmountable. Division overwhelms unity.

It is tough — though not impossible — for any one person to tackle these challenges alone. But together we can, and do, make a huge difference. Most people want to count on the institutions they deal with every day — business, governments, and non-profits — to address these big intractable issues. They want to play an active role in helping solve these problems.

The will is there. But where is the trust?

Data shows public trust in many of these institutions is at an all-time low. This gap between what people want and what they expect has been dubbed the “trust deficit,” and it’s having a corrosive impact on our society. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, said when he opened the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly in September: “Our world is suffering from a bad case of ‘trust deficit disorder.’”

“Trust is at a breaking point. Trust in national institutions. Trust among states. Trust in the rules-based global order,” he said. “Within countries, people are losing faith in political establishments, polarization is on the rise, and populism is on the march.”

Although the world is more connected, societies are becoming more fragmented than ever. Acknowledging this is the first step to addressing it.

A Call to Listen

We need institutions to do their part. The unintended consequence of mobile, social, and digital technologies is that our communicating skills have evolved faster than our listening skills. Today, any institution can communicate almost anything to its key audiences. We can use video, photographs, short messages, or emojis to say almost anything we want. Then we sit back and watch the metrics pour in. How many thousands or millions have witnessed the brilliant content we distributed?

Unfortunately, we’re missing the real path to unity and prosperity.

The answer is human sentiment. If we have the courage to listen, the people always know the way. Today they’re telling us in no uncertain terms what problems we should solve.

They want us to get on the same page about our environment. They’ve had enough of the arguments about the merits of climate science. Everyone can agree on the benefits of sustainability.

They want us to get serious about equality. Our channels are flooded with outrage over disparities, yet we continue to advance double standards by referencing “women leaders” or “female athletes.” People know that anything one of us can do, any of us can do.

They want us to think globally without disregarding our local communities. Here the challenge is steep, because many doubt that we can maintain this balance. This is why settings like the World Economic Forum exist, to confront the world’s anxieties and find a way to address them.

How Leaders Can Lead

To make progress, we can’t put the burden for change on the agenda of global meetings alone. We need every leader to have a bias for action. The right way — the only way — to restore trust is to put people first. This is not about slogans. I am talking about a profound change in the way institutions engage with individuals.

In the experience economy, 7 billion consumers are in the driver’s seat like never before. Emotion drives behavior, loyalty, satisfaction. People make buying decisions based on a range of factors, not just price. We embrace brands that embody our dreams and shun those that fall short. This has serious repercussions for organizations of all shapes and sizes.

As researcher Hal Gregersen has consistently advocated, we need a return to asking good questions: “Who is my customer?” “What do they feel?” “What do they want to me to change so I can improve their life?”

Today the tools exist to give every institution the sensitivity to this human sentiment that was once reserved only to sophisticated political campaigns. This goes way beyond an opinion poll or a focus group. It must be a far-reaching cultural transformation that sensitizes every person inside an institution to the people outside the institution.

Beyond simply listening, the trend-setting institutions will show a clear translation from individual feedback to tangible improvements in the experience.

If we do this right, we’ll prove that the gap isn’t as wide as people fear. We’ll show that every human experience has the same potential to change the future as our own experience had to shape our perspective.

The Judge and Jury Are Waiting

By now we’ve heard it countless times: “Young consumers will assign their loyalties to businesses that embrace a purpose.” The relevant statistics bear this out more and more each year.

A recent Cone Communications CSR Study, found that nearly 90 percent of consumers would purchase a product based on values, because the company advocated for an issue they cared about, and nearly 80 percent would boycott a brand if it supported an issue contrary to their beliefs. In the U.S. alone, 63 percent of Americans are hopeful businesses will take the lead to drive social and environmental change moving forward, in the absence of government regulation, and 80 percent said they want companies to address important social justice issues.

In a global survey, Brand Purpose in Divided Times, conducted by brand consultancy BBMG, two-thirds of consumers said that they will support companies that they believe make a positive difference in society. Conversely, a growing number of consumers are punishing companies with values with which they disagree , or that misuse their private data.

Many leaders have asked how we can address this growing mandate without blurring the lines between the public and commercial sectors. There are numerous best practices in this regard. First, tap emerging technologies to provide transparency. Look at blockchain technology, which while still nascent in many applications, offers the promise to ensure compliance across supplier networks, leading to a more efficient, sustainable, and ethical supply chain.

Second, with massive sentiment data at our fingertips, leaders can now directly confront issues that concern employees and customers. This is no longer a guessing game — the people know! Develop programs that encourage action around a shared mission, using digital platforms to scale impact. For example, gamification in the utility industry shows a tangible commitment to sustaining our planet, helping customers consistently save energy together. We have only scratched the surface on voice recognition platforms, as another example.

The more we think proactively about how institutions can empower individuals, the more loyalty (and trust) we’ll build.

The Human Experience Is Our Highest Calling

Eleanor Roosevelt said: “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

My colleagues at SAP are pursuing this noble goal with great courage and determination. I’m confident that all leaders can find similar inspiration in the people we are privileged to lead.

Like all intelligent enterprises, we also know that with great size and scope comes great responsibility. We take it seriously. The true measure of leadership is not what we take from this world, it’s what we give.

The trust deficit is fueling the human experience gap. For all of us who share a zeal to help the world run better and improve people’s lives, we can’t rest until we bridge that gap.

Bill McDermott is CEO of SAP.