I was in this class of graduate students explaining the work of Adam Seligman, The Problem of Trust, stating that trust became the glue of social relations when people broke free from the shackles of the agrarian communities in which respect, hierarchy and identity were wrapped up with tightly and traditional roles.
As people came to see themselves as free human beings, bonds of class, blood and belonging no longer held society together. Free people cannot be forced to cooperate by tradition or hierarchy, but only if they choose to make binding commitments to keep their word. Societies that prize freedom, autonomy, and choice, need trust to produce cooperation, because the traditional sources of cooperation, family, tribe, religion, and hierarchy are less potent.
So I asked my students what is trust for you people these days? Their answer was very illuminating. They said that in their every day language it meant the assurance that nobody was going to do them harm… it meant help, support, exchange, cooperation and promise keeping. They also said that somewhere ---- was also an element of compassion and forgiveness between people.
In another recent and formidable book by Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity, the philosophical point is made that when people trust each other, they make a judgment about how likely it is that they will be able to cooperate in a sustain and effective manner. As trust declines, so does the willingness to share information and pool risks. My students were right, in order to trust people will demand protection against the threat of somebody doing harm to another.
The more people trust one another, the more they are able to combine their different expertise and resources, without relying on contracts, rules and regulations. As Matt Ridley clearly shows in his outstanding work, The Origins of Virtue, trust is a vital form of social capital, as money is a form of actual capital.
All these reflections bring us back to an interesting paradox. Trust has become very important, because it fosters the cooperation and risk sharing that promotes innovation and flexible responses to change in a turbulent and complex economy. Yet trust has become harder to sustain, precisely because there is so much upheaval, turbulence and change, which threatens the settled relationship that breed trust.
Creating a trustworthy environment is increasingly important to the culture of work. Organizations will seek to create new strategies, products, services, processes and technologies by unlocking the tacit knowledge of their employees.
People share ideas and speak truth to power when they feel uninhibited enough to take risks. In a low-trust organizations, people will tend to hoard knowledge and only share ideas formally, through memos, and only when requested. In high-trust organizations people are more likely to bestow their knowledge one to another and develop joint understandings of problems and their solutions.
A climate of trust is vital to persuade people to open up and share ideas that maybe rejected. Trust and cooperation are essential to the work cultures of the future.
Copyright 2003 QBS, Inc.