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Leadership and Trust

Trust comes up a lot these days in conversations about leadership, and especially in conversations about networks.  Recently I heard it mentioned numerous times in a recent SSIR webinar, The Network Leader Roadmap, definitely worth a listen. Webinar presenters David Sawyer and David Ehrlichman from Converge for Impact introduced the concept of ‘trust for impact.’  They explain the idea in an article they wrote called “The Tactics of Trust” and share tools for establishing trust in a time frame based on the premise that we don’t have the luxury of years to cultivate trust relationships.   Their article and other speakers on the webinar addressed the importance of having authentic conversations about difference as an important ingredient for building trust. 

Networks thrive on diversity so the question of establishing trust across differences in perspective and experience is important. At a Leadership Learning Community Circle in Minnesota on trust, one participant bravely pointed out that our conversations about the importance of building trust relationships failed to recognize the historical trauma and current oppression of racial and ethnic groups that create a valid basis of mistrust.

Context is important. In a New York Times article, “In No One we Trust,” Joseph E. Stiglitz links a decline in trust to “staggering inequality.” He points out, “As the gap between Americans widens, the bonds that hold society together weaken.”  He is referring to a lack of trust in the system that breeds distrust among people who see a small minority, the 1%, benefit at the expense of others. He dives deeper into the problem with examples of the subprime mortgage lending and banks that forced people from their homes while walking away with huge profits. Stiglitz concludes that the only way to get trust back is through ‘regulations that embody the norms of good behavior, and regulations to enforce the norms’, in his words a new version of trust but verify.

 June Holley, author of the Network Weavers Handbook, introduces the concept of “Swift Trust” also based on the principle that we trust first, verify based on experience and adjust our trust beliefs if warranted. I have heard June talk about the importance of swift trust in a slightly different context, not from the standpoint of diminished trust but in the spirit of the need to step up our collaboration in the face of complex problems, and to learn to trust and overcome scarcity fears by trusting first and adjusting as needed. Interestingly, June moves away from the conclusions of Stiglitz about the need for more regulation. In fact, I have heard many people working in networks talk about the need to replace control (aka regulation) with trust.

In her book, June illustrates Gibbs triangle to talk about trust and regulation.  At the base of Gibbs triangle is trust, then communication, then goals and at the very top and smallest part of the triangle is control. When time is spent on developing relationships you have a stable base and resilience. If the triangle is inverted, as in the illustration below, because you spent all of your time on goals and controls rather than relationships you will have to bolster the unstable systems with rules and regulations.


Wired magazine ran an article that caught my attention, “How Airbnb and Lyft Finally Got American’s To Trust Each Other.” It got my attention because they point to a cultural shift, “We are entrusting complete strangers with our most valuable possessions, our personal experiences and our very lives. In the process, we are entering into a new era of Internet-enabled intimacy.”  The article also suggests that this could be a significant departure from formal systems of regulation that sprung up over the past century as proxies for trust that citizens lost in one another.

They claim is that this is not just an economic breakthrough but a cultural one.  The founder of Lyft tells a story about being inspired to start the company by a belief that “people are craving human interaction” and that technology can get us there. I do feel the need to add a personal note, caveat, that it is complicated. Lyft is facing a class action lawsuit by employees who feel that Lyft is skirting labor laws to avoid paying benefits to drivers. But, back to the point of the article. In the early days of the sharing economy (as it’s called) there were more traditional approaches to security screening, security deposits, vetting, background checks, insurance coverage for drivers and homeowners, more similar to what has been referred to as ‘institutionalized trust’, trust protected by rules and regulations.

The interesting shift in mechanisms for creating and ensuring interpersonal trust is the bent towards personal profiling. Through their research, these companies are recognizing that consumers are more likely to take better care of someone’s home or car when they have met and there is a personal relationship or, at least, a connection (a nod to Gibbs). It was suggested that people have pictures of themselves up around their home to establish a personal connection and accountability. And yes, the downside. A Harvard study of Airbnb found that guests are likely to pay less to African American renters than their white counterparts. So we are back to context and how trust is extended across boundaries, or not.

The more I delve into the topic of trust, as is the case with many topics, the more questions I have about it. In all of the conversations about context, culture, institutionalizing trust, swift trust or trust for action, I find myself thinking about the dominant culture of individualism in the United States. An article in Harvard Business review explains that trust comes down to the contextual trade-offs between short-term interests and long-term interests while another article suggests that there is a tension between balancing individual interests and the interests of the common good.

I feel like in the conversations about trust we are missing something fundamentally human, and less strategic and tactical about trust. It’s almost a spiritual challenge. In this culture of pervasive individualism, how do we recognize our interdependence and the crisis of believing that we have ‘individual interests.’

I will end with a story because it reminds me of two conversations with two different groups on the same question over a decade ago. The question we were pursuing in the wake of the Los Angeles riot was the importance of boundary-crossing work. We convened a group of seasoned civil rights activists who described boundary-crossing work as an important strategic means to a more just end. During this gathering, someone pointed out that there was no one under 40 in the conversation. We were charged with organizing a second conversation with people in their 20s and 30s on the same topic. This group described building relationships across boundaries not as a means to an end but as the important work that had to be done.

I look forward to more conversations across generations, and with people of different races and ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds about trust and our work together.



Picture from Pixabay