Why do we trust?

February 24, 2007 at 1:37 am 2 comments

Tiger looking pretty chilled outThe notion of trust is occupying my current thoughts. What does it mean to say we trust someone? or we trust a particular source? the success of knowledge management is often said to rely on a foundation of trust – trusted relationships and sources result in collaborative behaviour, mutual commitment etc which in turn lead to better knowledge sharing and transfer.

I think a number of concepts can be linked to trust (a) vulnerability – a decision to rely on another makes the trustor vulnerable to the actions of the other; (b) evaluation and prediction – the trustor comes to an assessment of how trustworthy the other person is and comes to a decision to trust or otherwise without the ongoing need to monitor the actions of the other (c) reliance – an intention to rely on and delegate to the other, which creates a relationship of willingness and intentionality; (d) risk – willingly placing oneself in a relationhip with the expectation that no harm will result (e) interdependence – creating a relationship of mutual commitment and responsibility.

A brief look at other languages surfaces further linked concepts. The Portuguese word for “trust” for example is “confiança” and the French is “confiance” – both imply the concepts of confidence; security; intimacy; familiarity; faithfulness; loyalty; dependability; or certainty. That is, a belief in somebody or something and this belief results in feelings of security, confidence etc in the strength of the trustee/trustor relationship. This relationship rests on a foundation of care and concern.

Etymologically, “trust” derives from Middle English but is more likely of Scandinavian origin, with the Old Norse word “traust” akin to “strong”.

Trust has a number of different bases I think. Trust can be knowledge-based – another person has expertise or experience that we feel can be strongly relied on; trust can be personality or character-based – the character, ability and past performance of someone leads us to place confidence in the other; trust can be legally based – a property interest held by one person on behalf of another or corporations formed by a legal agreement. Legally-based trust is confined by a legal framework that will reprimand the trustee if trust is breached.

To be in a state of trust implies I think three states (1) distrust; (2) conditional trust; or (3) unconditional trust. Is the human state to firstly distrust, then move to conditional trust (a willingness to transact with each other as long as each behaves appropriately and reliably); and finally end up in a state of unconditional trust (confidence in the other’s values that is repeatedly demonstrated by behavioural interactions that result in no harm)?

And what sort of trust does it take for knowledge management to succeed? given that contemporary organisations are more often than not “blame cultures” that are constantly restructured, does fear and uncertainty on the part of employees mean that a state of distrust is the norm? trust implies a level of risk taking (ie risking that placing your confidence in someone or something will be a positive experience) and trust reveals itself over time, through repeated behavioural interactions. Trust is fragile and can be easily destroyed by rumour, gossip, clash of values, political agendas etc.

In terms of KM and trust, I think we need to explore the target of the trust – do we trust the corporation or do we trust the individual as a human being (and disregarding job title or status)? If we look at knowledge creation; knowledge transfer; and knowledge use, we might be able to come up with some preliminary assumptions:

(1) Knowledge creation process: rests on organisational trust – a confidence that the organisation values fresh inputs and ideas; tolerates mistakes and learns from these; and that credit will be given to the knowledge creator. It also implies individual trust – the other person or team you work with will value your own body of knowledge, contribute to the stock and generate new collective knowledge.

(2) Knowledge transfer process: sharing your body of knowledge, which has accumulated over many years of failures and successes, is risky. What will other people do with it? will sharing my knowledge mean that I am no longer the ‘expert’? will the trustee (ie the person who receives the knowledge) act ethically with it? understand the context in which it was created?

There may be policies and procedures at the organisational level for knowledge transfer and to some extent an individual can rely on these eg contributions to the corporate intranet that follow a specified validation process. But at the individual level, successful knowledge transfer relies on conditional and unconditional trust. These states of trust are built in the shadows of the organisation or at the edges – in communities of practice; informal professional ties between work colleagues; shared experiences of employees.

It is here that trust in its various guises is most vulnerable. It can be betrayed by the simple act of misusing (even unintentionally) someone’s ideas or not acknowledging a team member’s contribution.

(3) knowledge use process: organisations consist of long-term and newer employees; less experienced and more experienced individuals. This milieu often results in the “not invented here” syndrome, where someone’s knowledge, perhaps derived most recently from another organisation, is regarded with suspicion or seen as competitive.

For this process, organisational trust is important. The organisation needs to accept and engage with new ideas and accept that knowledge derived from outside its boundaries is equally or more valuable than its own. Knowledge-based trust will also be important – if I am about to use someone’s stock of knowledge, has this person shown themselves and their expertise in the past to be credible?

In a further post, I will explore what the decision-making process might be when we choose to trust someone or something. In the meantime, I’ll finish this post with some questions:

  • are we a more mistrustful society now than in previous times? and, if so, what is the cause?
  • what level of trust will we need to place in our Governments and institutions (and even our fellow human beings) to overcome climate change?
  • will the tiger in the photo accompanying this post be able to trust that mankind can save the many dwindling species of this planet?

Entry filed under: Knowledge Management, Reflections, Trust.

Ambushed by David Gurteen Tired of looking at animals?

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Patrick Lambe  |  February 24, 2007 at 3:35 am

    Nice post Kim… your reference to constant restructuring clarified for me the difficulty
    of sustaining trust where the informal social networks are constantly being disrupted, broken apart and reassembled… I guess then the organisation itself then needs to compensate with the organisational equivalent of legal trust? ie strong governance, expectations about behaviours, and disincentives against cheating?

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  February 24, 2007 at 3:40 am

    thx Patrick :)- yes, I think the fragility of trust in the shadows might possibly be alleviated by better corporate governance and a clear understanding of acceptable shared behaviours and values. It’s at the organisational level that trust must be strengthened. Otherwise, there is a continual clash between individual types of trust and organisational trust.


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