Encouraging new ways of thinking about trust

Trust between humans always has both history and context. Even when we first meet somebody, context plays a part. We may already have heard something about them, or we may be influenced by their status or job title – e.g. we probably respond differently to a nurse, a businessman, a teacher or a homeless person. So in my view, if we want to understand how trust works, abstract definitions have limited value. Perhaps what St Augustin said about time could also be said about trust:

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

If we can’t define trust satisfactorily, can we at least begin to understand how it develops between people – and between people and institutions – over time? That is what Rob Warwick and I explored in a recent workshop in Brighton, by using stories, group conversations and writing to stimulate our thinking (Writing, Conversation and Trust: a day of exploration by the seaside: the AMED writers’ annual workshop, 20 May 2016).

The day stimulated me to think about how human relationships, and trust in particular, ebb and flow. If you think back to how one of your relationships has developed over time, you may recall some striking or memorable moments along the way. Perhaps something happened to unsettle or even destroy the trust between you. Maybe you managed to rebuild it. Maybe you didn’t.

Not surprisingly, I noticed the ebb and flow during the workshop. For example, I tended to feel warmer towards people who smiled or responded constructively to something I said. In contrast, when someone spoke in a complaining tone (as if they were a consumer who had bought a faulty product), or in an I-know-better-than-you manner, my trust sagged.

At the end of the day, I came away wondering again whether it isn’t a bit strange to focus solely on this “thing” called trust, when trust is only one of several aspects of human relating. What about fear, sadness, irritation, enthusiasm, love, disappointment, exclusion, rivalry or anger? Surely these all deserve our attention.

For example, I recall one day an old friend expressing what felt like vicious anger towards me. His words felt pretty much out of the blue. I notice that that memory has lingered in my mind ever since. I would still trust him in most things, but in that moment something precious was lost. So trust and (expressed) anger can be intimately connected.

One person in the workshop wondered whether trusting someone could be understood as “anticipating that they won’t do harm to us”. I suspect we just need to feel safe enough with other people to be able to “go on together”.

Alison Donaldson

Related reading

Alison Donaldson & Rob Warwick: The emergence of trusting relationships: Stories and Reflections. Report for Roffey Park, 2016.

Alison Donaldson & Rob Warwick: Trust and the emotional bank account: using stories to prompt learning. Strategic Briefing for Croner Publications, 2016.

The original research was funded by Roffey Park.

Insights from Mary Parker Follett into developing trust

follettpic2Mary 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.

Rob Warwick

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.

The creative mingling of trust and misunderstanding

Yoko Ono, Guggenheim, Bilbao
Yoko Ono, Guggenheim, Bilbao

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.

Rob Warwick

Mayer RC, Davis JH and Schoorman FD (1995) An Integrative Model of Trust. The Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 709–734.

Paying attention to the process of trust – the ‘Sheldon Dilemma’ 

254155-sheldon-cooperLast 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’.

Rob Warwick

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.

Shadow side of vulnerability (and trust)

Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be
Luc Viatour / http://www.Lucnix.be

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.

Rob Warwick

CIPD (2014) Experiencing trustworthy leadership Research Report September 2014.

Trust, Social Capital and lessons from West Virginia

Scan 2I 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.

Rob Warwick

Hanifan L (1916) The Rural School Community Centre. American Academy of Political and Social Science, 67(May), 130–138.

Putnam R (2000) Bowling Alone – The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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 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