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.

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