A dynamic way of thinking about trust

51NhfzZgauL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As part of our research, we are creating narrative accounts of how specific people have experienced the development (or demise) of trusting relationships.  We undertook to record the experience of just three people, which on the face of it might seem a very limited “sample”. Yet, to us, this approach makes complete sense, given that (i) stories enable us to describe and explore the complex, emergent nature of trust, and (ii) what we want are stories and vignettes that can be used in management education.

Our thinking is strongly informed by the writings of Ralph Stacey and colleagues, but it is always enlightening and reassuring to find additional underpinning for one’s chosen research method. I have just finished Henri Bortoft’s book Taking Appearance Seriously, which is a rich source of different thinking about experience and meaning. Three themes seem particularly pertinent for our work:

  1. A different approach to wholeness. Referring to the “hermeneutic circle”, Bortoft explains: “In order to understand the whole we must understand the parts, but in order to understand the parts we must understand the whole.” This gave me much food for thought regarding the case studies. What I take from it is that an individual’s experience is not just a subjective take on trust. Individuals are not completely separate beings. Rather, we are all connected. As Bortoft writes, “each person in their role in an organisation is in fact an expression of the organisation as a whole, so that we could say the whole organisation comes to expression, to some degree, through the role of each person in that organisation”. (For “organisation” perhaps one can also read “society”.)
  2. Phenomenology. Bortoft draws on traditions of scholarly thinking that invite us to take appearance (and experience) seriously. These include Goethe’s writing, as well as the phenomenological thinking that emerged in the 20th century (e.g. Heidegger and Gadamer). Bortoft also looks back to the history of western science to trace how we came to consider our sensory perception as unreliable and inferior, whereas mathematics and theoretical explanation came to be viewed as superior forms of knowledge. While theory-based scientific explanation has been extremely successful, it has had the effect of “shifting attention away from the phenomenon”, notes Bortoft.
  3. The importance of looking upstream. This means “shifting our attention away from what is experienced into the experiencing of it” (my italics). This seems extremely a propos for our research: we are thinking of trust not as a finished product of human relating but as a process. Like Bortoft, we are trying to shift our attention away from the thing called trust into the upstream process of how trust developed. How did trust evolve for the people we are speaking to? And what became possible after a sense of trust established itself – or what were the repercussions when a sense of trust evaporated.

Bortoft refers to the shift in attention (away from outcomes towards the process that got us to where we are) as the “dynamic way of thinking”. This fits well with our intention to focus on people’s experience of developing trusting relationships. We are not looking for abstract statements about trust, nor do we intend to make our results generalizable or repeatable, or even to create a general theory of trust.  Instead, we listen carefully to people relating their lived experience, and we hope that the resulting narrative accounts will inspire others to reflect on their own experience.

Alison Donaldson

Related reading

Henri Bortoft (2012). Taking appearance seriously: the dynamic way of seeing in Goethe and European thought, Floris Books.

Ralph Stacey (2012). Tools and Techniques of leadership and Management: meeting the challenge of complexity, Routledge.


One thought on “A dynamic way of thinking about trust”

  1. I just want to comment on the last few words of Alison’s last sentence: ‘inspire others to reflect on their own experience’. In any research there is a question: what will it achieve? In a practical sense we are looking to provide a ‘provocation’, or an opportunity to notice, the nature of trusting relationships of which we are part. To do this we will comment on how trust is discussed in literature (as in this blog) but more importantly narratives of trusting as Alison describes. It is by doing this that we hope to build a bridge to the reader’s own experience. In the autumn we will be holding a workshop or two to explore how we might create this bridge.


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