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:

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