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Simon Bostock

Interesting post. And I think it's important to unpick terms like 'trust' in an organisational setting.

Trust is one of those words that is buried under the weight of assumptions. We use it carelessly and it's clearly context-dependent. When it comes up in recriminatory conversations, there is a tendency for discussion to descend into the 'narcissism of small differences.'

For me, I've always used a working definition of 'shared risk'. You can't have trust without it.

Tom Gibbons

Thanks for this post Chris. As you have said, and Simon as well, this word trust gets thrown out with the assumption of shared understanding and rarely is anything shared at all. I completely agree that trust cannot be ‘managed’ into an organization or relationship.

I also agree that trust is context dependent but I think it can also be of value to consider trust outside of context. I think too often people are waiting to see if they can trust someone by experiencing the other person’s behaviours and then more or less judging whether or not they can be trusted. This can put too much power in the behaviour of the other person at the expense of the choice you can make about trust.

Years ago I ran a workshop called Trust and Compassion at Work and one of the things we did was to treat trust as a choice, independent of context. With this as a start point you either chose to trust someone or not. By playing with the choice to trust someone, regardless of context we then investigated where and why any discomfort might come from in making that choice. This then brought context back into the equation but by investigating the discomfort felt by choosing to trust first, we were able to get a better understanding of what elements of the context were most important in choosing to trust or not. Typically what was identified was some fear that you would be let down in some fashion by the other person and when you really looked at that fear it was nowhere near as important as the impact it was having on the choice to trust someone or not. In some ways we were taking back the right to choose to trust someone more readily by questioning what was important in our choices to trust.

It was somewhat of a back door approach to thinking about trust but often seemed to free up people to trust more readily. From a leadership perspective it also helped to shed some light on those behaviours that could be modeled to potentially help the choice to trust be more evident in the organizations they worked in.

Chris Rodgers

Many thanks, Simon and Tom for your comments.

If I understand your interesting “narcissism of small differences” point correctly, Simon, this reflects what I see as a central dynamic of self-organizing processes (which is how I view organizations). That is, the tendency to polarize. Both Edward de Bono (in his early writings on the “mechanism of mind”) and Ralph Stacey (in relation to organizational dynamics directly) have influenced my own thoughts in this area.

As I see it, the patterns of thinking and acting that emerge from our interactions can often be based on relatively arbitrary perceptions and interpretations of people’s behaviour. However, once formed, these patterns tend to become self-perpetuating. The act of categorizing someone/group (as either trustworthy or untrustworthy, say) makes polarization inevitable. Even though there might be a very thin dividing line between the competing patterns, there is a tendency for one of them to be chosen and the other ignored entirely. ‘Evidence’ that fits within the category is emphasized and that which doesn’t is ignored. Differences between experiences within a category are disregarded – people are either trustworthy or they’re not. At the same time, any similarities that exist, between one’s experience of those categorized as trustworthy and those who are not, are overlooked. In this way, small differences polarize into deep chasms, in an ‘I am right, you are wrong’ sort of way.

As regards your comment about the need for a percetion of “shared risk”, this seems to mesh with Tom’s about people's fear of being let down and the important point he makes that, when this is exposed, the fear (and hence the risk) is often seen to have been blown up out of all proportion.

On this point, Tom, and the idea of choosing to trust ahead of the evidence (or even in spite of evidence to the contrary), this was what I was trying to get at in the final point in my original post. For a leader, choosing to trust staff actually helps to create a different context from that which would be evident if the original decision had been not to trust them. The latter fuels a vicious circle of low expectations, tight control and alienation, which results in dysfunctional behaviours that seem to reinforce the original assumptions about people’s unwillingness and inability to contribute (i.e. their lack of trustworthiness). QED.

However, as I’ve found in practice as well as principle, starting with high expectations of people’s willingness and ability to contribute (i.e. starting from assumptions of trust) generates a virtuous circle of behaviours, in which the removal of excessive extrinsic controls enables contribution and commitment to flourish. This earlier post relates to that specific point: http://bit.ly/8fO9EU.

Cheers, Chris

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