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.

Joining the dots: from macro themes to micro interactions

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.

Rob Warwick

Bachmann R and Inkpen A (2011) Understanding institutional-based trust building processes in inter-organizational relationships. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0170840610397477.

Stacey R, Griffin D and Shaw P (2000) Complexity and Management – Fad or Radical Challenge to Systems Thinking? Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Thinking about case studies and our narrative approach

In this project we have created three case studies, in which we explore with the selected individuals their experience of building trust in their working relationships. A conversation with colleagues, one of whom was John Shotter, gave us some new food for thought about our narrative approach. Many of John’s phrases stayed with me — for example:

  • “Narrative material can be illuminating not representative… Small details can be very illuminating.”
  • “Close observations are extremely informative.”
  • “Countless showings up of trust combine into a holistic [sense of trusting].”

I particularly like the last sentence, as it expresses so well the notion of trust being an emergent phenomenon — the outcome of many specific interactions.

On the selection of people for the case studies, Rob and I agreed that it would be best to choose people who were at one remove from me — i.e. not personal friends or colleagues, but people introduced to me by somebody I already know.

One of the people we selected was R (she asked for her stories to be anonymous). I reflected on my own experience of developing trust as I became acquainted with her. She and I had previously arranged to meet up one day at my house in Hove to talk about another topic of mutual interest: blogging. A few days before, I emailed her to ask if she would be willing to have a conversation about trust and be the subject of one of our case studies. She agreed, but as our meeting approached I began to feel that I would prefer to spend our few hours together getting to know one another (as well as talking about blogging, as planned). So when I met her at the station, I suggested we make a separate date to talk about trust. I noticed afterwards that I felt much more comfortable about my future interview-conversation with her. And by taking the opportunity to get to know one another at our first meeting, I think the level of trust between us was higher when we subsequently met up at her house for the trust interview.

Alison Donaldson

Building bridges, or not

It occurs to me there are parallels between how we build trust and how a relationship develops between the writer and reader.  Much of the literature I am drawn to stresses that trust is a process, of taking the first step, of risk and of developing a stake in the other person’s interests.  Each party need to identify with the other in some way or another, including the credibility of each other, of being moved emotionally with any gift or expectation of trust or the straightforward logic of the process.  And it should be similar with literature – an exchange, albeit one divided by time between ‘nib-to-paper’ through to ‘paper-to-eye’.

But often it isn’t.  The conventions of academic writing seem to dull all but those logical senses.  When I read papers crafted towards the academic game I’m left unmoved.  I am particularly critical of those that base most of their argument on what other people have said on trust and shy away from discussing actual experience, their own or others.  If we don’t build effective bridges between the reader and the author how can we affect people’s  practice and how they think of their practice?

Rob Warwick

Thinking too much about trust?

Have you ever thought about something too much?  What seems obvious and intuitive unravels under logical examination.  One’s reaction: more thought and logic.  It is like picking up dry fine sand on the beach and soon your hand is empty. Thinking about doubt, hope, enthusiasm and many other human characteristics is similar.  But it is particularly true it seems of trust.  Trust is a social process, it needs other people, thus adding further dimensions to how we might study it.  Perhaps logic and thought are not enough: there is a tendency to chop and segment a subject into its component parts and then to step back and draw conclusions. We also need to give voice to the holistic sense of the experience, particularly that of anticipation as we jointly take the next steps in developing a relationship. And to build a bridge between the author and reader so that the reader might imagine the points being made in the context of their own experience.

Rob Warwick

Our focus on specific relationships and interactions

For this project, we undertook three in-depth case studies. What we wanted to explore with people were some of their specific experiences of trust emerging (or collapsing). We were not looking for big generalisations about trust in society. Instead we were curious to see if we could identify some moments where there was a movement in a person’s sense of trusting another (or being trusted by another). In other words, we wanted to encourage interviewees to notice the specific human interactions and incidents in which trust or distrust emerged.  Continue reading Our focus on specific relationships and interactions