Noticing the complex web of trust

002In the process of developing a trusting relationship something does not seem quite right. You perceive a mismatch between the trust you are aiming to develop and what you are noticing. Not that you can put your finger on it; perhaps you doubt the other person’s ability, their reliability, or even their honesty. There is something from your previous experience, your intuition, which is niggling away. You call a couple of people in your network whom you trust and speak with them about your concerns, but subtly. In the back of your mind you are thinking about the consequences of things going wrong and the obligations that you have to others and your possible loss of credibility. In talking to other people you come to a decision, perhaps a hesitant one. You may decide to trust the person, or set your expectations a little lower. Or to carry out more checks as your project develops. You might delicately ask others to get involved. Not that you would say ‘I don’t trust…’.  As time goes on there are conversations with the individual, those around him or her, and others that you have obligations to. You adjust your views on expectations in light of your experience and your growing understanding, as do others.

What we are talking about is power (Lukes, 1986).  Power of the here and now and of anticipatory power as we put our faith in others. The 20th century sociologist Norbert Elias stressed that power was not an object that one person owns over another.  Instead he viewed power as an elastic array of figurations and he used game theory to explain that:

…. It is obvious that a player’s playing strength varies in relation to his opponent’s. The same goes for power and for many other concepts in our language. The game models help to show how much clearer sociological problems become, and how much easier it is to deal with them, if one recognises them in terms of balances rather than reifying terms. Concepts of balance are far more adequate for what can actually be observed in investigating the nexus of functions which interdependent human beings have for each other, … (Elias, 1978, p75)

What I’m pointing to is the social nature of trust, even in a straightforward case. Very soon it becomes enmeshed in a social web of interconnections, some of which one is aware of, others less so. Within this mesh some people have more influence than others.  The experienced player will navigate these, often subconsciously. Within this mesh, particularly in our organisational lives, no one has complete sanction to trust or be trusted. Everyone is enabled and constrained by others. This may be explicit, in written procedures, but more often than not implicit in the way things are done, often established over decades. Navigating and stretching this mesh becomes a skilful act in order to effect change. In other words how much tension can be applied before problems occur?

It is worthwhile considering what can be done to make these connections more available for discussion – how do we notice them? What conversations can be initiated and with whom? As we become expert in a social setting we become less noticing of it. Remember the first day of your job, how acutely you noticed what was happening and how people related to each other, but as you settled in your ability to notice diminished.

Rob Warwick

Elias N (1978) What is Sociology? New York: Columbia University Press.

Lukes S (1986) Power. New York: New York Univerity Press.


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Rob Warwick

My experience lies in the various aspects of organisational change, particularly working with groups and individuals to understand the impact of change and the opportunities it offers. Areas of knowledge include: the formulation and implementation of Government policy; corporate strategy and planning; management control within organisational change; and public sector compliance. A common thread through much of my work is making sense of ambiguity and conflict. This includes the impact of newly introduced legislation and government policy, mergers between organisations, or their parts; and, the workings of multi-disciplinary groups. These experiences were a major influence on my doctorate on healthcare policymaking and the unpredictable and paradoxical impact it has on frontline staff practice. Areas explored in my thesis included the often unexamined implications of a scientific systems based approach to change and the impact this has on people. My thesis includes practical actions to improve policymaking.

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