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.

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: (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.

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:

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

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

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