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.

Trust in peripheral vision

51u5Fj0aH+L._SL500_AA300_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.

Rob Warwick

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.

Möllering G (2006) Trust: Reason, routine, reflexivity. London: Elsevier Ltd, Available from: http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=TmIhOqNNckkC&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&ots=_lJ9AWjxSa&sig=sAt6bAEjZcI6onPpPAQIYApeWBs#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Venkatesh S (2008) Gang Leaders for a Day: A Rouge Sociologist Crosses the Line. London: Allen Lane.

From broad definitions to rich descriptions

Scan3In a section of his book on leadership called ‘Hallmarks of Team Excellence’ John Adair (Adair, 2002), a leading writer on the subject, provides the following very reasonable broad description of trust and support:

A good team trusts its members to pursue their part in the common task.  Appreciation is expressed and recognition is given.  People play to each other’s strengths and cover each other’s weaknesses.  The level of mutual support is high.  The atmosphere is one of openness and trust. (p161)

The general heading of ‘Hallmarks’ is telling, it is static and this is often the case in how trust is written about.  Although it is a description that I can relate to and seems ‘obvious’ it lacks something essential.  What we are interested in are the rich descriptions of the sense of movement as we negotiate our ways round and into trusting relationships.  Here the micro-interactions are important: what we do, how these actions are reacted to and how these lead to further interactions.  And why we sometimes get stuck.  Then there are the actions that we can take to change those relationships, how we relate to each other and how these in turn come to affect and hopefully improve our trusting relationships.

Rob Warwick

Adair J (2002) Effective strategic leadership – An essential path to success guided by the worlds great leaders. London: Macmillan.

Chicken soup and the quantification of trust

41M3TsvdosL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A couple of weeks ago we found ourselves at the University of Chichester in the front row of a traditionally tiered lecture theatre.  We were there to listen to Professor Patrick Sturgis from Southampton University talking on trust.

Patrick based most of his argument on methods that involved large data sets going back decades including the 1959 ‘Generalised Trust Question’.  Insights included a fact that trust had remained largely constant in the UK over the last forty years, whereas in the US it had been declining.

But it was his reference to chicken soup that grabbed my attention; that trust was the ‘chicken soup’ of human relations.  He was quoting Eric Uslaner (Uslaner, 2002) from the University of Maryland who said.

Trust is the chicken soup of social life. It brings us all sorts of good things, from a willingness to get involved in our communities to higher rates of economic growth and, ultimately, to satisfaction with government performance, to making daily life more pleasant. Yet, like chicken soup, it appears to work somewhat mysteriously. It might seem that we can only develop trust in people we know. Yet, trust’s benefits come when we put faith in strangers.

Chicken soup conjures up feelings of comfort, warmth, family and reassurance, particularly in times of un-settlement or ill-health.  It was a stark contrast to the graphs and comments about statistical significance.  Like with many subjects there are many routes to knowledge.  These few lines, which one can almost ‘smell’, not only captured the essence of what trust feels like inside us, but draws this experience into the issues that matter in a functioning society of which we are part. Trust therefore exists both at a person-to-person level and in the context of wider society in ways that are difficult to fathom.

Rob Warwick

Uslaner E (2002) The Moral Foundations of Trust. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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

Irritated and stimulated by an article on trust research

Bachmann’s article “At the crossroads: future directions in trust research” is useful in that it challenges our premise that trust emerges from interpersonal interaction. It also warns us to take the institutional context of such interactions into account. But I did find the article highly irritating for a number of reasons: Continue reading Irritated and stimulated by an article on trust research

A short note on Onora O’Neill’s Reith Lectures on Trust

ScanIn her 2002 Reith Lectures, Onora O’Neill finds no convincing evidence to diagnose a crisis of trust in our society today. But she does see massive evidence of a culture of suspicion. And she has her own suspicions. If we are to avoid a real crisis of trust, she suggests, “we need to think less about accountability through micro-management and control, and more about good governance; less about transparency and more about limiting deception” (page 99).

O’Neill also points out that, in the information age, “communication is often between strangers and one-way” (page 84), so we need to find ways of checking who is providing the information and whether they are trustworthy.

Alison Donaldson