The Blind Men and the Elephant of Trust

The Elephant of TrustIn my last post I wrote about the silos that exist between and within business and academia when it comes to trust. There are few subjects outside philosophy for which the question of subject matter definition is so important as it is in the case of trust.

Like the tale of the blind men and the elephant, each party sees an important part of the subject of trust – but then is inclined to view the rest of the world in those terms. As the saying goes, if you have a hammer, the world looks like nails.

So this is my attempt to define the differing perspectives on trust, looking across the fields of business and academia. I welcome your additions or comments.

I identify four important views of trust, and I’ll label them by the best-known holders of those viewpoints. They are distinguished mainly by differing focus on the trustor, the trustee, and the resultant trust, as well as by individual, social or institutional trust.

The Psychologists’ View

The psychologist’s view focuses on the perception of an individual person facing the decision to trust. In the words of Mayer, Davis and Schoorman in an oft-cited 1995 article, trust is:

the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party.

This is a model built around an individual trustor, not a trustee, and in particular about the trustor’s assessment of the trustee’s competence, integrity and benevolence. It’s my impression that this model is typically portrayed in a rational, self-good-maximizing context, comfortable to behavioral economists, for example.

If you search Twitter streams – the democratic way of market research – this is also the most common use of the word ‘trust.’ The twittersphere is full of “don’t trust women, they break your heart,” or “when people lie to me I can’t trust them.” (Though note: twitter users are a whole lot more affective or emotional than the usual behavioral model allows for).

An interesting application of this trustor-centric viewpoint beyond the individual to the corporate perspective is Bob Hurley’s The Decision to Trust, where he deals with group decision-making and cultural factors that affect trusting behavior in the company.

The Political Scientists’ View

Political scientists like Uslaner or Fukuyama also focus on the trustor’s viewpoint, but focus on groups of trustors (e.g. nations, or cultures), and on their willingness to trust generally, e.g. their inclination or propensity to trust strangers. It is from this viewpoint that we read about the greater levels of trust in the Scandinavian countries, or the lower levels of trust in southern Italy or in Wall Street trading firms.

Uslaner calls this generalized trust, something measured in the General Social Survey for decades; it changes slowly, unlike trust in specific people or institutions.

The Corporate Virtues and Values View

Where psychologists focus on the trustor’s decision to trust (a verb), business tends to focus on the trustee’s trustworthiness (a noun). At an individual level, that might be called virtues; at a group level, values.

In my own model, co-developed first in The Trusted Advisor, the Trust Equation is the expression of the the individual virtues of trustworthiness – credibility, reliability, intimacy, and other-orientation. At an organizational level, the Trust Principles are the articulation of group values in my own construct.

A recent example of this viewpoint is PwC Chairman Dennis Nally’s article The Trust Agenda. It focuses on creating value through values, and on creating greater trustworthiness from within; and not much at all on the issues of trusting.

The focus on virtues and values is an obvious one for business, which for the most part is more concerned about being trusted than trusting. Of course, being trustworthy alone isn’t sufficient to make trust happen – you need a trustor. Business in general focuses on the trustor role mainly through the eyes of the trustee, just as psychology tends to view the trustee largely through the eyes of the trustor.

Business and academics alike have trouble defining institutional trust; it makes a little bit of sense to say we trust Citibank (or not), but very little sense to say that Citibank trusts us. Both trusting and being trustworthy are largely individual traits.

The business focus on the trustee therefore makes “a trustworthy organization” at least conceivable, whereas the academics’ focus on the trustor makes “a trusting organization” problematic. The answer, I suggest, is to frame trust issues at the organizational level as being about creating trust-enhancing environments – not just about trustworthiness, and certainly not about abstract entities committing human acts of trusting.

There is one important attempt to rigorously identify objective characteristics of trustworthiness at a corporate level; it is the FACTS model of Trust Across America. It is the most data-based proof I know of the corporate-wide profitability of trustworthy behavior.

The State of Trust View

What happens when you measure the result of the interaction between trustor and trustee? You get something like the Edelman Trust Barometer, which is known for drawing conclusions like “trust in banking is down.”

This is a survey approach to trust. It doesn’t try to distinguish lower trustworthiness in bankers from lower propensity to trust by consumers, but instead precisely tracks the net result of that interaction.

Numbers in the State of Trust view are constantly changing (unlike in the political scientists’ view), because the object of trust is very specific (an industry, a government sector), and there is an implied specific action. Asking “do you trust Amazon” presumes a very specific object of that trust – typically to buy books or to guard data. It doesn’t occur to us to trust Amazon with our babysitting.

By contrast, numbers in the political science view change slowly because, as Uslaner puts it, if I punch you in the face, your trust in me may decline, but your trust in the human race is pretty much unaffected.

The Role of Risk

There can be no trust without risk, Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” statement notwithstanding. Risk is implicit in the Corporate Virtues and Values view, and explicit in the other three.

In the corporate realm, partly because of the focus on being trusted, companies have confused risk eradication with increasing trust. There is a vicious paradox of trust – the more either party tries to control risk, the less trust results. Companies who think they are increasing trust by risk mitigation and compliance programs are doing just the opposite – they are eroding trust.

The challenge for business –recognize the role of trusting, both within the organization and outside it.

In the academic realm, partly because of the focus on trusting, it’s difficult to account for the boomerang effect of greater trustworthiness that results from being trusted. People have a way of confounding rational-choice models when it comes to trust.

The challenge for academia – recognize the roles of virtues and values in their own terms, not just through the eyes of the risk-taking trustor.

What business can learn from academia: a structured, disciplined approach to studying issues of trust.

What academia can learn from business: a wealth of real-world data to be studied and understood.

So there you have it – my attempt to describe several of the blind men feeling the elephant of trust.

What’s your take on it?