Reflections on how trust emerges in organisational life
Author: 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.
Our report on trust has just been published (Donaldson and Warwick, 2016). It was a year ago when Alison Donaldson and I started our project, financed and supported by Roffey Park.
Trust is an increasingly important subject in organisations, particularly as relationships are more fleeting as people go from one employer or project to another. We were interested in taking a different tack from the routine academic examination of the subject that tends to be overly ‘thoughtful’ and analytic. What if we were to gather a number of stories, conversations and insights from literature and use these as a way for people to connect with the whole gamut of feelings as they go about developing relationships? That is what we have done, paying attention to: vulnerability, hope, risk, disappointment, calculation, the unfathomable, the dynamic between individual and group, of power and so on.
We have not come to any snappy conclusions. Instead we hope that we have come up with some useful insights and resources that people might read, discuss with their work colleagues and friends. And in doing so be jolted into noticing the development of trusting relationship in a slightly different way.
If you would like to read more about our approach and the methods we wrote a short paper titled Trust and the Emotional Bank Account for Croner-i in their strategic HR series. Here we also outline the implications for organisational development and HR practitioners.
It is not quite over (for example click here) we are still interested to explore how our work has been taken up and is continuing to affect trusting relationships.
Mary Parker Follett was an incredible woman. She was interested in organisational behaviour and theory, a management guru for a world hardly prepared for her insights in the early twentieth century, nor indeed today. She did not propose beguiling simple solutions, instead she was keen to describe the flux of social interaction in ways that are useful. I’m going to offer three quotations. The challenge is this: if they resonate with your experience of working in organisations what are the implications for how we might think about trust?
The individual is not a unit, but a centre of forces … and consequently society is not a collection of units, but a complex of radiating and converging, crossing and re-crossing energies. Society is a dynamic process rather than a crowd or a collection of already developed individuals. (Follett, M, 1918)
In social situations you cannot compare what you bring and what you find because these have already influenced each other. Not to understand this is the onlooker fallacy: you cannot see experience without being a part of it. (Follett, M, 1924)
The leader must understand the situation, must see it as a whole, he must see the interrelation of all the parts. He must do more than this. He must see the evolving situation, the developing situation. His wisdom, his judgment, is used, not on a situation that is stationary, but on one that is changing all the time. The ablest administrators do not merely draw logical conclusions from the array of facts of the past which their expert assistants bring to them, they have a vision of the future. (Follett, M, 2013)
This is my interpretation, yours may differ: I strongly identify with her comments that we are part of the action, there is no standing aside. And as we interact we are changing those around us as we in turn are being changed in both predictable and unpredictable ways as we develop new relationships. I ask myself, how do I think about trust before I meet someone for the first time or work with them in another capacity? I have an imagined idea, perhaps shaped by what I’ve heard, their reputation or that of the organisation. I might be mindful of the expectations of those around me, or what might be at stake. Perhaps I might remember the conversations about trust itself or what I have read in terms of models and approaches to trust. All of this is in the mix as I wait to meet them. When I meet them the subtle process of trust begins its work. Intuition and the rational me intermingle as we both navigate and develop understanding of each other, staying mindful of what I want to achieve and those around us that have an interest in any progress we might make. In the conversations I notice how our interactions are developing, perhaps a few trust-enabling gestures which I can respond to. The conversation ends, a relationship has started, there is much to build upon. Mary Parker Follett challenges us to think about what organisations are (or should we instead think of the activity of organising?) and how we can be aware of the interconnections that we are all part of. All vital as we develop trusting relationships. As with other aspects of organizational life, there are no beguilingly simple solutions.
Follett, M P (1918) The New State: Group Organization, the Solution of Popular Government. Literary Licensing LLC.
Follett, M P (1924) Creative experience Volume 3 of Organization behaviour. Reprint. Рипол Классик.
Follett, M P (2013) Freedom and Co-ordination, Lectures in Business Organization, Vol 15. London and New York: Routledge.
In a paper due to be published shortly, I discuss what I have termed the ‘routines of innovation’.
To stay ahead, organisations need to innovate: creating new services, products and value for the customer. And it is here that there is an essential connection between trust and misunderstanding.
First, misunderstanding: I argue that for something new to emerge it helps if people see and experience things differently. This might be brought about by different people and groups working together and/or changing the way they do things – for example, people who might not otherwise work with each other being put into a project or product development team. By asking simple, but often awkward, questions they start to unpick each other’s assumptions and ways of seeing the world. Sometimes it can feel like walking into a glass wall resulting in argument or hurt. But in this jolting, new patterns of noticing are established in conversations and people relate to each other, and sometimes themselves, differently. Far from being a problem, misunderstanding creates the opportunity.
And now for trust: for the process of innovation to work there needs to be enough trust and willingness to put faith in each other. This means an acceptance of vulnerability to the actions of others over and above one’s need to monitor and control the actions of others (Mayer et al., 1995). This feels risky, particularly in the face of hurtful misunderstanding. Risk, vulnerability and a developing reciprocity of action and gestures are all essential in developing trust. In other words, we are increasingly invested in each other’s success and failure, and we need to understand how each of us can play our part.
But there is a tension between misunderstanding and trust, a dynamic paradox. It is not a case of one or the other but both. The nature of this ‘both-ness’ can be messy, but it is in this that trust, newness and innovation can emerge.
Mayer RC, Davis JH and Schoorman FD (1995) An Integrative Model of Trust. The Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 709–734.
Last year I was at a leadership conference and listened to a presentation about trust. The researchers were examining people’s experience of trust by using a questionnaire survey. It got me thinking how difficult it is to ‘measure’ trust due to its complex relational and contextual nature and how this plays out over time. It reminded me of the process of exchanging a gift and the sense of expectation that is created between the giver and receiver. And it is in this reciprocity of expectation that relationship continues. Trust can be seen in a similar way, but here the focus is not a tangible item like a gift, but the relationship itself brought to life with confidence-building gestures.
Pierre Bourdieu, in Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), argued that the tendency of abstraction, free from context and the temporal flow of events, is a fundamental problem of researching how people interact with each other. An objective approach would consider the principle of gift exchange as a form of reversible operation. Here gifts are to be returned by an item of similar value, thus cancelling out the obligation. Or in the case of trust, confidence-building actions are matched by similar actions. However this does not account for the intertwined context that the parties have to navigate, along with feelings of hesitation, possibilities and expectation, and how this fits in with the meshed course of irreversible past events. Bourdieu also considers ‘style’ of gift exchange – the occasion and nature of further gifts – and how this affects the experience of the ongoing process.
To illustrate the point let us take Sheldon Cooper. Sheldon is one of the main characters in the comedy, The Big Bang Theory. They are a bunch of rather nerdy physicists and engineers working in a university along with their friend and neighbour, Penny, a waitress who dreams of stardom. Sheldon, bordering on the autistic, sees everything from the perspective of the objective scientist. And it is this mindset that trips him up when Penny gives him a Christmas present, here is the video (Cendrowski , 2009). Shocked that he has been given an obligation, in the form of a present, he buys a range of gifts of different values. Upon receiving his gift from Penny he plans to quickly check its price on the internet so he can give the one of closest value and return the rest to the store. But of course, Penny gives him something priceless (and worthless): a signed napkin of Sheldon’s hero, Leonard Nimoy. Here the zero-sum game of gift exchange collapses and Sheldon is overcome. How then can we describe trust in a way that gives voice to the relational and anticipatory nature of experience rather than focusing on the abstract notions of exchange? I shall call this the ‘Sheldon Dilemma’.
Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Cendrowski , M. (2009). The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis. The Big Bang Theory, Season 2, Episode 11.
The word vulnerability has cropped up a number of times in this blog and elsewhere in the literature on trust. For example, the CIPD in a recent report stated:
As we know, trusting others means accepting vulnerability (Rousseau et al 1998). Human leaders recognise that in order to build trust and create sustainable trust environments, they need to share some of that vulnerability with their followers in order to signal to them their trustworthiness.
(CIPD, 2014, p18)
I agree, but there is a shadow side that is worth exploring that has implications for trust itself. On the one hand vulnerability could be seen as a ‘sugary’ term that implies goodness. I will put forward another view of vulnerability, one that is enmeshed in the goings-on of the workplace, which can be toxic and corrupt. The picture I will paint is of a fictitious police department in a small provincial city. Here there is a young moral police officer who is keen to progress through the ranks. She is new to the area and is keen to fit in. The team she is joining is longstanding and some of the members have worked with each other for many years. She is accepted politely but cautiously. Over the years it has become customary to engage in certain activities that are against rules such as clocking more overtime than actually took place and taking as much sickness leave as possible. Everyone in the department knows this goes on, even the senior managers, who did this when they were younger.
To be trusted, what does the young officer need to do? Perhaps to indulge in one of the practices she sees going on? As soon as this happens she becomes enmeshed in a web of longstanding mutual culpability. At this point she can be trusted to know more secrets, perhaps involving more serious activities. Over a period of time this once moral and honest person becomes a part of the criminality she was so keen to fight. And in a few years when a new member of the team joins she talks with them discreetly as to ‘how things are done around here’.
The point I’m making is that vulnerability is neutral, it is neither good nor bad. It only becomes so in practice. And the same goes for trust.
CIPD (2014) Experiencing trustworthy leadership Research Report September 2014.
In 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.
Elias N (1978) What is Sociology? New York: Columbia University Press.
Lukes S (1986) Power. New York: New York Univerity Press.
I am interested in the possible role of frameworks in developing trusting relationships. Here I define a framework as any predefined means of addressing a problem, opportunity or issue. As I will come to explain, these might include predefined standards or expectations and the means to achieve them in order to reach a desired goal. It is important to talk about frameworks, because they are seen as the way to get things done in organisational life.
Here is the situation. Something goes wrong, there is a public outcry (quite rightly), and the call for ‘something must be done’ goes up. The result is some type of framework. Perhaps this means a set of uniform standards to be adhered to along with a means of verifying this, plus targets and an inspection regime. Organisations such as the Care Quality Commission or OFSTED are born, to watch over the framework and report back. In the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal in the UK, politicians even invented one for themselves – IPSA. The people on the frontline, now including politicians, complain that they spend their time filling in forms and awaiting dreaded inspections. Some of the people I come across during the course of my work spend much of their energy reconciling a growing gap between the needs of inspection regimes and the needs of customers, such as older people in care homes or children at school.
It is not just governments that have this tendency. Large organisations are quite adept at inventing frameworks. Although responding to a legitimate need, they seem to do little to develop trusting relationships and sustainable ways of working. We are putting greater trust in these frameworks rather than those people with local expertise and knowledge on the frontline. A dynamic develops whereby another problem occurs, perhaps another scandal, and a further tightening of these frameworks occurs: another inspection body, more powers, harsher targets and the requirement for more evidence. The result perversely is that senior leaders’ attention is drawn towards these frameworks and less to what occurs on the ground.
There is another perspective. Instead of trust being thought about on a larger scale, now let us consider it at the human-to-human level, and then explore if there might be some reconciliation between the two, a question we have explored elsewhere.
In another publication I have talked about trust as an exchange of gifts. In summary, to build a trusting relationship, so the argument goes, you need to offer something – a vulnerability. By this I mean some piece of information or insight about you that enables the other party to demonstrate that they can be trusted. Nothing too significant, it is just a first step that over time can be responded to in the development of shared obligations. You get to know each other and develop an understanding of one another’s world – what is it that is important to the other person? You develop a sense of their network of relationships, by which I mean obligations they have to others and vice versa. You are now becoming a part of that network. And in this developing relationship, style is important as well as substance: style that comes with intuition and judgement of your expertise in the social melee.
There can be no shorthand list of do’s and don’t’s that will guarantee success. Instead it takes vulnerability, practice and reflection and the learning from a few hard knocks along the way. Reflection is key: what you have done, how this has been responded to and the actions that then occur.
In an earlier post we wrote about Onora O’Neill’s 2002 Reith Lectures on trust (O’Neill, 2002). Now I would like to discuss her 2013 TED talk (O’Neill, 2013). In developing trustworthiness, she encourages people to ask themselves: is the person with whom one is developing a relationship honest, competent and reliable? But to ask those questions in the context of a specific issue of trust – for example, can I trust this person to take my child to school and not in a blanket way? These seem sensible prompts to have in the back of our minds as we develop relationships. But I would add one thing: as well as asking those questions in relation to the other person, ask them of yourself too. In other words, we need to increase our own awareness of strengths and weaknesses that we all have, albeit with different degrees of personal understanding. It is in this light that we can offer and expect in return meaningful vulnerabilities and insights from which to build.
Is what I have just described a framework? It is certainly different from those that governments and organisations adopt, but it does tick the boxes that I set out at the beginning of this post with respect to some predefined means of addressing a problem, opportunity or issue. It can act as a useful prompt.
I would now like to look at the differences between a framework and a prompt a little more closely. The frameworks associated with government and organisational policy work on the basis that there is little trust, requiring evidence that this or that has been done to a predefined standard. Here the trust is placed in the framework itself rather than the people whose work is governed by it. Once set up, it reduces the need for thinking, offering some assurance that the problem has been sorted. The other type of framework – the prompt – enables us to think and talk about the subject, to see trust developing in ourselves and others and to notice the trusting process that we are a part of. In other words it enables us to pay attention, to think and to be reflective.
You may think that I would be in favour of the second type over the first. That is not entirely true. When I go to a hospital I want to have some assurance that I will be treated to a good standard. The days of the consultants strutting the wards striking fear into staff and patients are thankfully long gone. So some form of standards and joint expectations is helpful, but not to the extent that I see staff living in dread of the inspection and allowing that dread to harm what they do.
There is a vital tension between the two types of frameworks. A collapse of this tension in favour of one or the other serves no-one’s interest. If one accepts my observation that many people on the front line feel that their work is directed more towards satisfying the demands of the frameworks than those they are there to serve, what can be done?
This might require a loosening of the policymakers ‘grip’, or put bluntly, increasing trust. What are the means by which the policymaker might do this? To return to O’Neill’s three prompts, we have competency, honesty and reliability. Are we saying that there are grounds for concern on any of these in relation to the carefully defined tasks that people have been given? After all, opinion surveys constantly rate the likes of doctors, nurses and teachers as being trustworthy. For policymakers to start the process of trust what might they do? Or, what vulnerability might they offer? I would suggest a careful look at the inspection frameworks and seeking other ways to achieve the objective of providing reasonable assurance. This might include increasingly being part of those social processes of frontline staff, to inhabit their world to get a deeper understanding. From my own research (Warwick and Board, 2013), this will result in different and richer conversations and understanding between all parties and the development of a more grounded trust.
In letting go, there are risks, but these need to be set in context of broader less tangible long-term risks. On the one hand there are immediate risks of harm, for example to the patient. But the broader and less tangible risks include the pernicious degrading of morale and feeling of worth that will come to undermine the sustainability of services such as health and education. For the policymaker this might seem uncomfortable and counter-intuitive. But building trustworthy relationships can be uncomfortable, particularly taking the first step.
I pointed earlier to O’Neill’s idea that building trusting relationships requires vulnerability on both parties, and that reliability, honesty and competency can serve as a helpful personal framework. Having done this I have explored this idea in relation to trust on the micro and macro scale, that of the policymaker and frontline staff. I have done this to ask the question: what can be done to increase sensible trust to make sustainable services possible? There is hope but this will require well-placed trust and the sharing of vulnerability. An issue that I will return to.
O’Neill O (2002) A Question of Trust. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
I want to return to the connection between what people do on the ground and how this comes to affect the culture of an organisation, and in turn how culture comes to influence people. This time from a different angle, that of social capital. This should be of major concern for those interested in organisational health and development.
Social capital provides a way of understanding the currency from which trust develops or withers away over time. Robert Putnam became interested in the idea and history of social capital in his analysis of trust in the US (Putnam, 2000), tracing it back to a 1916 paper by Lyda Hanifan (Hanifan, 1916). Putnam makes the point that social capital is the fertile soil from which trust can grow. Hanifan was an educationalist with an interest in the social flux between education and society. Instead of abstract theory he was interested in the goings on of his local community of West Virginia, USA.
Here he defines social capital as being:
… that in life which tends to make … tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of a people, namely, good will, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit. …
The individual is helpless socially, if left entirely to himself. (p130)
Like other forms of capital, it can grow and develop or be wasted. So what can be done to nurture this valuable resource? He points to the value of ‘sociables’, of picnics and community gatherings and having the opportunity to get to know each other; and to form a habit of doing this. And once this starts to grow and connections are made, the capital increases. There is also the role of education and the powerful effect of learning together. Education was not confined to schooling children, but also evening classes for adults. Hanifan also noted the importance of history and belonging and how this comes to develop individual and group identity. Even the quality of the local roads attracts his attention.
He paints a picture of an endeavour that requires leadership, organisation and time; not effort that is focused on individual activity, but effort that has its eye firmly set holistically on how it all comes together. Hanifan goes on to say:
If he may come into contact with his neighbour, and they with other neighbours, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, sympathy, and the fellowship of neighbours.
Note Hanifan’s attention to the dynamic process between the individual and the group. This is an important point. For those in a leadership role, there can be no certainty of success, no cause and effect. In other words there is a complexity in this highly networked process, whereby small interventions might have larger effects than those anticipated, and vice versa. But we can at least increase our chances of success in encouraging the potential for social capital and therefore trust.
Hanifan concludes with the following observation on leadership: ‘It is not what they did for the people that counts for most in what was achieved; it was what they led the people to do for themselves that was really important’ (p138). In other words, developing social capital is a social endeavour; with good leadership it can be prompted and encouraged.
Hanifan was writing in the context of communities and networks and the implications for leadership. The challenge for us is to think of this in the context of building trusting relationships in organisations and the leadership challenges that this poses.
It is striking how much of what is written about trust points to either local interactions between people on a very small scale, for example two people having a conversation over a coffee, or to the wider abstract organisational level. But it is the interaction between the two that I find particularly interesting. In a 2001 paper Bachmann and Inkpen puzzled:
While the existing literature makes a very convincing case for the importance of institutions in the process of trust building in relationships between individual and collective actors, there is no clear understanding of how institutional arrangements precisely find their way into the decisions and actions of (potential) trustors and trustees. In other words, it is unclear what it means when we say that institutional arrangements are a constitutive part of a relationship based on institutional trust and that trust is developed by references made to strong and reliable institutional arrangements in which a relationship is embedded. (Bachmann and Inkpen, 2011, p27).
Perhaps the subject is just too big to think of holistically. That said, there are some thoughts that might be helpful based upon the ideas of Ralph Stacey and colleagues (Stacey et al., 2000), who pay attention to such everyday interactions by using complexity as an analogy.
Interactions between two or three people often unfold in directions not anticipated by either of the parties. Words are said and reacted to in ways that are both expected and unexpected. Conversations are constrained. By this I mean there are things that can be spoken about easily and agendas that are encouraged. And those that are not. These conversations are fashioned by the propositional themes of the organisation. Sometimes these themes are deliberate in the form policies, strategies, targets or values. Or by an unsaid culture that has been fashioned by interactions between people spanning years. But more often it’s a bumpy combination of the two.
These propositional themes have their beginnings in similar small conversations. A policy for example is developed by a small group, often quite senior, who themselves are constrained by culture and other propositional themes that they are experiencing at the time of their conversation. What I’m pointing to is a widespread patterning of interactions between people leading to constraint, novelty and transformation.
This way of talking about organisational life enables attention to be paid to conflicting and paradoxical processes. It enables us to develop an understanding of the connections between local interactions, for example a conversation between two colleagues, and the wider organisational story. They unfold and impact on each other.
This way of thinking offers a possibility to make connections between those micro interactions and what this might tell us about the wider themes that can come to define an organisation. These insights, drawn from the narratives of people involved, can never be perfect but they can offer useful clues that help us join the dots.
Trust is written about in a number of ways. Here I would like to discuss two: one being less direct, but sharper; the other more direct, but less ‘knowing’. In this latter case a number of authors tackle trust head on (Luhmann, 1979; Möllering, 2006), treating it theoretically, discussing it in relation to power, reason, habit and how we think about our actions. The argument makes sense intellectually, but it is hard to make a connection to practice or experience. In other words there is little ‘knowing’ in the practical sense. Whereas when I read ethnographic accounts (Bloch, 2013; Venkatesh, 2008) of lives lived, trust is rarely explicitly mentioned, but it is there as people describe how they get on with each other, particularly when the stakes are high. And in doing so one partially lives that journey too, even second guessing what might come. Take Venkatesh’s story for instance, of a graduate student who wants to research gangland culture in Chicago. It is a story that spans years as the student gains the trust of the gang leader JT. A trusting relationship develops between two very different people and extends to the wider gangland network and their community. It is a relationship that is shaky, tested and dangerous. Though the word trust is rarely used, it is the underpinning.
Perhaps trust is like seeing something from the corner of your eye: there it is clear and makes sense. As soon as you turn to look directly at it, any clarity disappears. And in trying to gain more understanding it takes on a different quality, less of experience and practice, more of intellect and theory.
Bloch M (2013) Types of Shared Doubt in the Flow of Discussion. In: Pelkmans M (ed.), Ethnographies of Doubt – Faith and Uncertainty in Contemporary Societies, London: I.B. Tauris & co.
Luhmann N (1979) Trust and Power. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.