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Source: geralt/pixabay

These days most of us are comfortable making purchases from our mobile phones, and think nothing of uploading our personal data to “the cloud.” We may not understand how some of the newer digital solutions work, we just assume that they will. As researchers from the University of Missouri reported in this 2015 Journal of Business & Psychology article, we’re “excessively optimistic” that technology drives successful outcomes.

If only we had that much trust in human beings.

According to the annual "trust barometer" put out by global PR firm Edelman for 2017, "trust is in crisis around the world." Trust has plummeted in media, "and is at all-time lows in 17 countries." Government "is the least trusted institution in half of the 28 countries surveyed." It's not as if we expect that much from corporate leaders, either, since their credibility has hit "an all-time low...plummeting in every country studied." With respect to Edelman's methodology, that means 28 countries and over 33,000 respondents. 

He who does not trust enough will not be trusted. —Lao Tzu

As the quote above suggests, it's up to each of us to remedy the current trust deficit. But how? What risks are there in continuing to place our faith and trust in machines (as appears to be the case) and not each other?

Based on a 10-year field study of 24,000 people in two dozen organizations, the authors of Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization identified five different stages that natural groups ("tribes") maintain or move through. Each hold very different attitudes on trust, with implications for innovation, collaboration and loyalty, as shown here (with the percentage of professionals holding such views in parentheses):

Stage 1: Trust no one and nothing (2 percent)

Stage 2: Lacks trust in bosses and co-workers (25 percent)

Stage 3: Trust must be earned (49 percent)

Stage 4: Trust is assumed (22 percent)

Stage 5: Trust is no longer a consideration (2 percent) 

Unfortunately, write the authors, “Stage Three (what they call The Wild, Wild West) runs the world, from political campaigns to most business books to the set of unstated assumptions about how organizations should operate.” Yet, they say, “Where trust is an issue, there is no trust.” More of us need to start moving into Stage 4. 

Perhaps one way to rectify this sorry state of affairs is to reflect more deeply on what we mean when we use the word "trust." Not least, how it differs when applied to humans as opposed to machines. 

According to Charles Irvine, CEO of UK consultancy, Questions of Difference, “One of the challenges with trust is that it’s one word we think covers everything. When we talk about machines, a more accurate paradigm is confidence, as in ‘Do I have confidence, proven through robust algorithms, statistics and data, that this process will be efficient and my data will be secure?’” says Irvine. “On the other hand, we cannot definitively prove whether human beings are trustworthy or not, because of our different interpretations of competence, integrity, honesty, authenticity and the other terms we combine to define ‘trust’.”

When working with clients to handle conflicts, develop leaders or change cultures, Irvine chooses to see trust as a continuum, with the needle moving higher or lower depending on the degree of integrity each party brings to the conversation. “To say, ‘I trust everyone until you break my trust,’ or ‘You have got to earn my trust,’ is not helpful,” he says. “Taking an either/or approach to trust implies notions of people as machines, rather than complex and flawed human beings.”

In other words, while automation instills a sense of safety, this isn’t the same as trusting—something we’re always trying to mitigate because of the risks inherent in human relationships.

Institutionalizing trust

It wasn’t until the last 200 years that trust became institutionalized. Up to that point it was a bottom-up process involving small groups—like guilds and chartered companies—comprised of “people like us.” That wasn’t doing much to boost economic prosperity, however. Not until large institutions came along with more efficient systems and co-opted the mantel of trust.

Ironically, digital technologies are helping to shift trust back to those earlier times by dissolving geographical boundaries and making it easier for us to connect with people that share similar values, interests and needs. (Although, as many of us are aware, there are considerable downsides to listening only to those who bolster our confirmation bias!)

“Local providers once had an advantage over large, “faceless” firms because it was easier for them to adapt to the characteristics of trust expected by their communities,” says Cyrille Joffre, Chief Technology and Information Officer at telecommunications services company, Sure, which operates in Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man. “Digital technologies including the cloud, machine learning and data analytics now provide large companies with the vehicle and fuel for regaining trust. Data sources can be integrated and services highly personalized, based on consumer data.”

For example, Joffre points to German-based startup, Friendsurance that uses a peer-to-peer model to transfer knowledge and power back into the hands of consumers. Segmented into small communities according to the type of insurance they need, members pool premiums, spread risk and share a cash back “kitty” when no claims are made. 

Power to the people

Joffre also believes that the “digital ledger,” called blockchain, will help transform our concept of trust by providing “a paradigm shift that enables economic empowerment. This will allow us to reclaim ownership of our identities and our personal data, as well as create and exchange value without powerful intermediaries acting as the arbiters of money and information.”

One result being that consumers will no longer need to concern themselves with whether a new service provider is likely to act ethically and responsibly, or if a company will handle their problems quickly and efficiently when things go wrong, because they will be in control of frameworks populated by people to whom they relate and therefore trust. 

Mapping naturally occurring trust networks within organizations is a service that Stephen Scott’s company, Starling Trust Sciences, is currently testing in “private-beta” mode with a handful of select organizations—again, utilising technology.

“There are always some deeply trusted people operating within an informal network that don’t appear on any organizational chart, yet foster linkages that help drive record financial performance,” says Scott. Through a combination of data science, network science and behavioral science, Starling can identify—with a high degree of accuracy—where pockets of high and low trust occur in a company, so that key influencers can be retained and areas of dysfunction addressed.

“Technology creates a middle road between our historical trust in clans and the trust we’ve placed in systems over the last 200 years,” he says.

All about relationships

But technology is just technology, according to Iain Beresford, Group Head of Business Development and Marketing at offshore law firm, Collas Crill. His responsibilities include maintaining the promise of the brand, ensuring clients experience consistent reliability and integrity.

Like Charles Irvine, Beresford takes a realistic perspective on trust. “Sometimes the expected behavior falls down and someone is not as responsive as they should be, which fundamentally affects the trust a client has in us. But there is an upside to that in offering us a chance to see where gaps exist, so we can remedy them.”

This is where technology needs to take a back seat, he says. While blockchain enables users to self-regulate and leverage the natural instinct of people to trust each other, and data mining allows companies to know more about consumers in order to offer individualized products and services, at the end of the day it’s all about relationships. Human relationships. Not least between leaders that are open and transparent and establish clear guidelines with their teams.

“My team trusts that I support them. I joke that while I’ll always give them enough rope to hang themselves, I’d never allow them to do it,” says Beresford, adding, “Today, when an organization is considered trustworthy it’s almost a competitive advantage. But it’s crazy that it should be.”

"My team trusts that I support them." Does yours?

Because, as American economist, Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out, “It’s trust, not money, that makes the world go around.” Maybe we needed to wait until technology caught up so we could reinstate trust to where it has long been, historically—with small groups of ordinary people, not those in positions of power or bureaucratic processes.

What do you think? 

(A version of this article originally appeared in BL Global magazine, titled "Trust Me or Not.") 

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