The complexities of trust

By Sonja Blignaut

Continuing the series of posts on topics discussed during our COOL Connecting conversations in 2023, let's look at one of the most interesting topics we covered: Trust, Confidence and Complexity.  

If complexity is all around us, and in fact, it IS us. It permeates and impacts almost every aspect of our lives positively and/or negatively. Many truths we think we know or take for granted are upended by complexity.

For example, let's think about Trust. It is a general assumption that we need to trust ourselves (have confidence) and others to form and maintain relationships and be successful. In his book Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey wrote, "Where trust is low, everything takes longer and costs more." In other words, Trust is a currency that powers our ability to get things done fast and effectively. 

What happens to trust in ourselves and others when we face complexity?

  • As a leader, coach or consultant, how do we instil Trust in our clients or teams when we don't have the answers and can't guarantee outcomes?
  • Can we trust our senses in a world of deep fakes and AI?
  • Do we still know how to trust, i.e., what to base our Trust on?

Let's first consider Trust in ourselves or confidence. Where do you usually draw your confidence from? For most of us, our confidence comes from our competence or expertise, i.e. what we know and our ability to deliver. So what happens in complexity where continuous change and emergence mean we are always on the boundary between knowing and not knowing, feeling competent and incompetent? In a world with intelligent machines, what value does our knowledge have? Sometimes, our past success and existing expertise become liabilities. 

How about trusting our own senses? Can we trust our eyes and ears in a world of deep fakes? Can we trust our judgment?  

Perhaps we need to learn to base our confidence on our ability to learn, adapt, find new potential, relate, empathise and connect.  

Now, let's consider Trust in other entities or people.

The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer provided some interesting and concerning statistics. 53% of participating countries agreed that they were more divided than ever. Perhaps most alarming, the results seem to say that we cannot trust people who don't share our beliefs and perspectives. In answer to the question: if a person strongly disagreed with me or my point of view, 30% of people said they would help that person if they were in need; 20% said they would be willing to live in the same neighbourhood and 20% said they'd be willing to have them as a coworker.   

"If Trust is the new currency, we are heading for a global monetary crisis. Trust, the oil that moves the wheels of human progress, is seeping away from the very institutions that are at the vanguard of addressing the critical challenges humanity faces." - Vishal Patel.

Why is Trust seemingly eroding, and what does complexity have to do with it?

According to conventional wisdom (and ChatGPT), Trust is typically created and maintained by: 

1. Consistent, honest, and transparent behaviour

2. Meeting expectations and delivering on promises

3. Effective communication

4. Fair treatment and equal application of rules

5. Resolving conflicts in a fair and just manner

6. Protecting and respecting the confidentiality and privacy of information

7. Demonstrating empathy and understanding towards others

8. Shared values and goals 

Many of these factors become impossible in complexity.

• When dealing with unknown unknowns, we can only "know as we go, not before we go". This means we are wayfinding and experimenting. So mistakes, missed deadlines, unmet expectations, or broken promises are unavoidable.

• If our context is dynamic, what we think we know today may no longer be relevant or correct tomorrow. Sometimes, we must retract a statement or policy, change our minds, and pivot.

•Competing priorities and dilemmas mean we can't always be "fair", and some conflicts cannot be resolved. 

•Sometimes, we must act "obliquely", so being transparent and communicating openly is not prudent.

•Diversity and spanning boundaries are critical to our resilience. So, interacting and trusting others with different perspectives and values are unavoidable.

So, how, then, do we trust?  

Some other ideas we explored included the idea of Trust as an affordance, i.e. in the right conditions, an environment or relationship will afford Trust.  

  • Constraints - What constraints must be in place to create affordances for Trust?
  • Relationality/connection - what relationships are needed for "trust tagging" or the flow of Trust?
  • Time: Trust takes time; how do we scaffold it?  
  • Affordances are perceived directly, somatically, and psychologically. What is the role of intuition and gut feeling?

We didn't find definitive answers in our conversation (not that we expected to!), but we did explore the idea of defining simple rules or enabling constraints to scaffold or enable Trust. We considered starling murmurations as an analogy. Birds flock based on three simple rules: stay together (fly to the centre), match speed, and avoid collision. Murmerating patterns emerge when birds follow their nearest neighbour. Are there similar "simple rules" we can follow to help build and maintain Trust when the conventional ways are unavailable to us?

Two interesting heuristics emerged from the group. 

Beware of ...

  • Anyone who is "too certain". In complexity, you shouldn't trust someone who is sure they know what is going on and are certain about what will happen. Someone who is not curious or open to new information and lacks humility.
  • Anyone who shows up in ways that are incongruent with what they say. For example, someone who "speaks complexity" but isn't open to other perspectives or always wants to be right or in control.  

What are your trust heuristics? Contribute them in the comments below.

Want to go deeper? Here are a few links.

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