Building Trust in Society and your Organisation

by Augusto Cuginotti

Why is Building Trust Important?

Trust is a social construct that provides a measure of security, a way we can cope with the natural anxiety we carry about not knowing what is about to come, what is going to happen.

As individuals, it means relying on the other, believing no risk comes from that association. For society, it is the fabric that allows us to take some things for granted, i.e., don’t check everything all the time.

So, let’s say you trust someone in a particular context, you rely on them to be your partner in action: if you trust someone with a secret or some money, you judge the other person as trustworthy. The same with institutions or society in general – you might or might not trust that media outlet, the police or your local political representative.

When we trust, we expect that the other party will not behave in a way that breaks that trust or tries to take advantage of it. If it is broken, it can lead to a sense of betrayal and loss. Trust has been a significant predictor for success in long-term relationships with others in both our personal and professional lives.

Having people’s trust will make them more confident in your work, which means there will be less reputation damage when you make a mistake. Furthermore, when you trust someone, you are more willing to experiment too. This will be key when we explore the impact of trust in our organisations.

What are the Definitions of Trust

Trust is the bedrock of all human interactions and is imperative to a functioning society. For human beings socially, trust is our most valuable resource, but there is no common understanding of what trust is.

Trust according to the Ontology of Language

Trust is a psychological state defined by one person “willing to take a risk together with someone or something”. It is a judgement we make, a declaration about the other, not necessarily entirely rational, defining if that person or institution is worth the risk of us engaging with them and acting accordingly.

There are 3 domains of trust according to the Ontology of Language:

  1. Sincerity: our judgement if our private internal conversations are aligned to our public discourse;
  2. Competence: our judgement of the other’s competence in a specific domain or task;
  3. Trustworthiness: our judgement over time if the other keep their promises.

Master Yoda from Star Wars saying: "A Bad Feeling About This, I Have".

Emotional aspects of trust are just as important, if not more important, than cognitive aspects, so it is common to feel that we trust or not even without interacting with someone – it can be a projection or just a “bad feeling about this”.

Emotional and cognitive aspects of trust are integral components of this element in human relations, and if they are misaligned, we can put it in check.

Trust according to Brené Brown

Brené Brown is a renowned American researcher and professor, famous for her theory on social connection to vulnerability. According to Brown, trust is the core of the human relationship, and without it, we cannot be fully alive and fully human. We need trust in our lives to open up and be seen and fully experience life.

A woman thinking "Go Figure"

Trust between two people is established when we allow the other person to see our true selves, vulnerabilities, and imperfections. She uses Charles Feldman’s definition where trust is “choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else.”

To explore all aspects of trust, she coined the acronym: BRAVING. (A love from acronyms, go figure). You can find more all over the web.

In our personal lives, trust tends to be developed over time through a series of interactions with someone else – a person we know, respect, and believe in. As we spend more time together and establish a relationship, we will see that person’s good qualities over time and gradually develop trust in them.

The role of building trust in our society

Let’s also look at a social system view on trust. Imagine all the interactions we are exposed to in this world. Processing all the information around us would overload both our brains but also societal communications. I mean, it is already overloaded, right? I argue it is because our trust levels are low, but we will come back to that.

Trust allows us to move forward without double-checking everything; imagine having to check credentials of your doctor, your mechanic, and your bank every time you interact with them. Instead, you just trust them. Trust helps us assume risk relationships that otherwise would take us energy and time to access and judge in all the aspects we had previously discussed.

We need to rely on trust to cope with the world’s increasing complexity.

Trust according to Niklas Luhmann

“The great civilising processes of transition towards trust in the system give mankind a stable attitude towards what is contingent in the complex world.”

Niklas Luhmann

According to Luhmann, trust is needed in our society so we can cope with complexity. In the past, our society would simplify things through religion and cosmology, so trust in the way we use it today was not needed. There was no need to individualise trust in a world of faith and ‘god-willingness’ as our decisions were divinely guided.

Trust became an issue from the moment there were identifiable personal risks in our decisions, and they could be related to our association with individuals or institutions. We then started to judge if an association was a risk and if we were willing to take it.

So trust in societal terms has to do with expectations and predictability. Because the future contains many more possibilities than what could happen in the present, uncertainty is constant. Trust acts as a constraint to the possible futures that can come to be, reducing uncertainty.

“Since the future overburdens man’s ability to represent things to himself, he has to live in the present together with this – extremely complex – future.”

Oquendo in ‘Niklas Luhmann’s Theory of Social Systems’

So, for Luhmann, beyond interpersonal trust that we have explored on above definitions, there is a need for systemic trust, i.e. trust in the various social systems of society. Modern society has increasingly differentiated, impersonal processes and/or mechanisms such as the law, educational degrees, or medical procedures. Those are evolutionary achievements to reduce its increasing complexity.

Looking from this perspective and the times we are living in right now, it is understandable the feeling of being overwhelmed and the polarisation happening in the world. Both walk hand in hand to the discredit of our institutions and the increasing complex challenges in our world. As an example, being more globalised (as in refugees and COVID disparities) and more aware of its impact on the environment (climate change).

Building Trust in the Organisation

Successful long term organisations are built on trust. Employees and collaborators need to feel like they can be themselves at work and be supported by their colleagues.

Building trust in the workplace has always been a challenge, but it seems especially hard to achieve these days. Many are under more significant pressure than ever before, and it’s becoming more difficult for them to maintain a balance between work and their personal lives.

Organisations are desperately looking for ways of increasing people’s well-being while maintaining productivity and competitiveness. The result of this imbalance has brought up the risk of people leaving and burnout. It’s not enough for organisations leaders just to say “trust me” or promote mindfulness sessions. They need to show that the others’ interests are accounted for and can be trusted more than ever.

As a subsystem of society, organisations that build internal trust will be more able to respond to environmental changes. It is a matter of attention and energy: if you have to check and control your internal bureaucracy and communications, you won’t have enough to respond appropriately to the constant changes coming from society – think the market, but also D&I, well-being, COVID.

How to build internal trust in your Organisation

We will work in the future to explore the role of informal communications to build internal trust in your organisation.