The Paradox of Trust

The following post is written by Dr Iver Drabaek, who is a graduate of the doctoral progamme at the University of Hertfordshire, Complexity and Management Centre.  Based in Denmark, Iver works as a management consultant specializing in corporate integrity, fraud and corruption. Given his domain of work,  Iver has written and thought a lot about trust.

In most societies trust is thought of as a prerequisite for doing healthy business and as fundamental for good relations. It is one of those things that we would like to have more of and which – as many other “good’s” – it has long since been put into formulas in popular management books like Peter Covey’s: “The Speed of Trust: The one thing that changes everything”, or Stevenson and Barcus’: “The Relationship Advantage: Become a trusted advisor and create clients for life”. Still we know little about how trust really emerges and most of us probably have also experienced the unpleasant feeling of distrust when we are together with people we think we ought to trust because they are either close friends or relatives. Or maybe we have been taken by surprise when people who appear trustworthy are revealed to be fraudsters who have tricked people to believe in them. No doubt trust is a complicated issue.

Jack Welch once said: ‘You know it [trust] when you feel it’, and in most cases I tend to agree with him. Trust cannot be willed: it is something that emerges in a relationship and which paradoxically is always accompanied by distrust. You cannot plan it; and you cannot learn it; although admittedly some techniques are more helpful and some attitudes can get in the way. As I see it, whenever we start thinking about trust we think it is opposed to distrust, and when we experience a trusting relationship then trust is the dominant theme and we believe that it is reciprocal.

94ffc532eb5479f8Trust arising in relationships of power creates many intriguing patterns. In many business encounters we start a relationship by wanting something from the other, which immediately puts us at a disadvantage. People we want something from immediately have more power over us.  It could be a business opportunity where we try to convince a potential client of the benefits of doing business with us; or it can be a job interview where we want to get the job. In both these cases the one seen as having most power in the relation, the one that can give us what we want, is the one that we would like to trust us. We use various skills and techniques to come across as genuine and trustworthy. Ironically we try to behave in a self-conscious  way that shows us to be naturally trustworthy.  Sometimes we experience good contact with the more powerful person, but in reality we know that we are being tested for the opposite, i.e. if we provide a bad impression we are out. The “trustworthiness” factor is just one amongst many factors that governs the decision. Only if the “more powerful”  person has already decided on these other factors and sees the encounter as the final test will they grant us some of their power and start acting genuinely as this might be a start of a lasting relationship.

And although we might want to appear trustworthy then do we so by trusting the other? Or is it something we “pretend”? Whenever we present ourselves – even when less is at stake- we tend to emphasize the good things and downplay or skip the not so good things. Somewhere there is an invisible ethical border which we do not (voluntarily) want to cross because doing that would precisely make us unworthy of trust. But we do not know exactly where the border is and for some a little exaggeration is all right or has even become the norm. So we might think we are not crossing the border while the other person might think otherwise. Does this matter for trust-building? Do we need to share the perception of where this border is in order to develop a trusting relation or is the effect of trust that it influences our mutual perception of the border? Whenever I come to reflect on what a trusting relation is and how it develops, more questions than answers seem to pop up. In the time of the financial crisis it is probably worth reflecting on this especially since some of the key issues of the crisis is related to “trust in systems” and blurriness around the border between personal integrity and a trustworthy appearance.

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