Pitfalls and opportunities of frameworks in building trust

By Tetrisforaliens (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Tetrisforaliens (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
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.

Rob Warwick

O’Neill O (2002) A Question of Trust. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

O’Neill O (2013) What we don’t understand about trust. TED, Available from: http://www.ted.com/talks/onora_o_neill_what_we_don_t_understand_about_trust#t-5789 (accessed 24 May 2015).

Warwick R and Board D (2013) The Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge: A Reflexive Inquiry Into Research and Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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.

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

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