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Robert Andrew
 
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What is this thing we call ‘trust’?

26 January 2014, 13:30

The great French Renaissance thinker Michel de Montaigne believed that "nothing is so firmly believed as that which is least known". The concept of trust is a bit like this; everyone believes in trust and recognises its importance, but we seem to know very little about how to achieve it. How often do we hear company executives extolling the virtues of trust to their staff and stakeholders but then acting in untrustworthy ways? How often do partnerships or alliances fail because of a lack of trust? How often do government public initiatives fail because the people do not trust the government?  How much importance does lack of trust among our ethnic and cultural groups have in preventing the blossoming of our country?

 So, what is this thing called trust that people readily believe in, but have so much difficulty in achieving? Dictionary definitions tend to focus on terms like 'worthiness of being relied on', 'confidence in truth', all-purpose social glue' or something that 'imposes moral obligations'. Not a great deal of help if one wants to be practical about it. Perhaps we should rather view trust as a catalyst that helps people communicate more effectively with each other, thereby promoting co-operation. In a chemical reaction, a catalyst speeds up the process but remains unchanged once the reaction is complete. So too with trust, it speeds up communication and brings about rapid and sustainable co-operation by eliminating any misunderstanding of the motives. Like a catalyst, trust should remain unchanged, which is in contradiction with the view of many where trust is seen as something that has to be earned and easily broken by inappropriate or false behaviour. Viewing trust as a slowly accumulating but easily diminishable 'stock' is probably one of the main reasons why total trust is so seldom achieved.

 Our tendency to force people to delegate much of their thinking to so-called experts is possibly another reason for our failure to achieve trust. In many businesses today, experts in the form of consultants are called in to solve all sorts of perceived human resources, organisational or financial problems, usually at great expense. Given the opportunity, many of these problems could be solved by the employees themselves who, while they may not necessarily have the right academic qualifications, have significant 'in-house' experience and a much better 'feel' and empathy for the company's culture. The same applies to South Africans being given freedom to try and to solve South Africa’s problems, without any censorship or ‘state security’ problems. Being denied these opportunities for making a contribution to their company or country does little to instil a spirit of trust. If such a spirit did exist, the people would have a far greater willingness to work together and multidisciplined teams could be formed from within the company or the country that would promote ongoing co-operative learning. This, in turn, would go a long way to establishing a trusting business or citizen community.         

Leaders and managers, government officials and political parties, can do much to establish and maintain trust. They can also do a great deal of harm. In this regard, the most important element is the vision they communicate to their staff, communities or constituents. They need first to believe in the vision themselves and to realise that visions are very fragile creations that can be destroyed by heavy-handed daily routines and inconsistencies. Incongruent action, no action, losing staff in detail and over-complications can cause the vision to become increasingly hazy. Leading and managing means constant, supportive and enthusiastic mentoring and coaching in the vision. Trust will grow as the vision becomes clearer; it will die as it is smothered.          

Because of the complex interplay between motives, intentions, actions and behaviour, it may appear that trust is an extremely difficult concept to apply and achieve. As with many other behavioural patterns, psychologists are using the science of complexity in trying to find a few seemingly simple rules that can break through the perceived complexity and in so doing reveal a degree of order.

 Adele Lyon (In Search of Honor) may have found these. She lists four factors that she believes collectively will provide the best way of building and maintaining trust. They are 'importance', 'touch', 'gratitude' and 'contributions'. By importance she means making people feel that their participation, however small and mundane it may be, is still meaningful. Touch means having a caring attitude toward people, gratitude means simply just saying thank you and contributions mean that all must share in the effort. These four simple, yet very powerful, rules can result in a high level of trust emerging from a dark and complex environment of mistrust, envy, suspicion and apathy. Seeing how well these rules work in practice, in our individual, social, community and at a national level, will also provide us with a better understanding of what trust is really about. We owe it to ourselves to at least try!

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