Posts filed under ‘Trust’

How do we choose to trust?

Max konked outIn an earlier post, I explored trust. I want to further this exploration by looking at what the decision-making process might be when we decide to trust. I am confining myself to interpersonal trust – a future post will deal with trust in civic society.

In deciding to trust, a major factor must be the match between the trustor and trustee’s personal characteristics, interests and values – like attracts like as they say and there is resonance. The situation that the trustor and trustee find themselves in must also colour the decision – how high or low is the risk? how likely is it that an act of betrayal or abuse of trust might occur? the trustee’s integrity will come into play here.

There are aspects that are in the trustor’s control – who to trust and a willingness to accept the conditions under which trust is placed ie the risk. Who to trust is perhaps only partly in the trustor’s control. A decision or judgement has to be made about the trustee’s personal qualities and their trustworthiness. This has to be based on repeated behavioural patterns or visible indications demonstrating that the trustee can be relied on. Can you trust someone if you have not witnessed evidence of that person’s trustworthiness? and if so, what would that decision be based on – intuition, hope, sheer force of will? can one trust a complete stranger?

There seems to be a point of tension here – to trust denotes a rational reflective process of deciding who to trust; but trust also involves an element of risk that negates to a certain extent rationality. The trustor is in a position of vulnerability and must assume the risk that the trustee is untrustworthy or will betray the trust.

Everyday we put our trust in other people and knowledge. In earlier times, people believed the world was flat without any real evidence to show that ships didn’t actually drop off the horizon into some abyss. If a stranger rushed up and said “pink panthers exist”, do we not place our trust in that person or their statement simply because we personally have never seen a pink panther? since we don’t know this person, we presumably can’t decide to trust based on personal characteristics or repeated observable behaviour. So is the trust we might place in this person based on rationality? (which is relative: it might be rationale for you to believe in pink panthers, but not for me, at least until evidence pops up to the contrary).

The decision to trust must also carry with it optimism – the trustor believes that the trustee is competent, will do the right thing, will act in the interests of the trustor. Implicit in this is the belief that the trustee has a motive for acting kindly, with care or ethically. In an earlier post, I looked at positive psychology and one’s explanatory style – if you are pessimistic you are likely not to trust and you might assign suspicious motives to others; but if you have an optimistic explanatory style, you are more likely to believe that other people can be relied on because they have goodwill (and goodwill really gets us into looking at the notion of virtue – a future post!). But ongoing commitment must also be a factor – will the trustee be commited long term to the relationship and the preservation of trust?

I wonder if the notion of “value” must also arise from the relationship for the decision to be made to trust someone. Possibly entering a trusting relationship is of itself ‘value’. Or obtaining knowledge from the relationship might be considered of value.

Externality impinges on the decision to trust – what type of organisation or society one exists in must dictate whether trust is justified. A ‘blame culture’ presumably leads to low levels of trust since notions of integrity, professionalism, acting out of motives of care rather than political agendas are noteworthy by their absence. A democratic society presumably demonstrates higher levels of trust than a totalitarian one. And here is another point of tension – knowledge management relies on a foundation of trust; that people will be motivated to share; to be the trustee of others’ knowledge. But if the organisational climate is one of command/control, assigning blame and burying mistakes – then an individual’s decision to trust will be based not on an internal decision-making process but on the external reality. In such a mistrustful climate, individual trust will be withdrawn. The organisational challenge clearly involves answering this question – how can trust be recovered?

Clearly, when deciding to trust there are many dimensions involved. One that I haven’t yet explored is whether trust is simply an emotion – another post.

I’ve raised more questions for myself than answered. But I think it’s critical for knowledge management practitioners to fully understand trust in all its aspects so that ways of cultivating trust can be identified. Until my next post, have a good lie down like the rather tired collie in the photo accompanying this post :)-

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March 14, 2007 at 9:00 am 4 comments

Why do we trust?

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?

February 24, 2007 at 1:37 am 2 comments


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