Realms of Trust and Manifestations of Trust

Most would agree that trust is a hot topic just now.  That’s about the only thing agreed upon about trust, however.  We can’t even decide what it means.

I wrote a post last week called Trust, Trusting and Trustworthiness.  I suggested that much writing about trust confuses these three manifestations.

Think of that post as Managing Trust Part I — Trust Manifestations. Think of this as Managing Trust Part II — Trust Realms.

There are three trust realms in all: interpersonal trust, organizational/institutional trust, and social trust.

The realms of trust are well known to academic trust researchers, not so much to business people. They do make simple common sense, however.

1. Interpersonal trust

Interpersonal trust deals with one-on-one dynamics. Most of my work has focused in this area. It’s the stuff of relationships, selling, advisory businesses, and personal risk-taking.

2. Organizational and institutional trust

This form of trust covers a wide range of issues: the organizational environment conditioning interpersonal trust relationships, the trust of individuals in their organizations and institutions, and the nature of trust relationships between organizations themselves.

Surveys that measure “trust in government” can shift dramatically and quickly, with the election of an Obama, or the humbling of an SEC, for example. In these respects—speed and personalization—organizational trust resembles personal trust. But it also deals with organizational cultures and values—undeniably group phenomena.

3. Social trust

Social trust deals with the generalized beliefs individuals hold about “other people."  Think under what conditions you’re likely to lock your car doors. Unlike the other two realms, this trust doesn’t deal with people as individuals; also, it tends to change only glacially, perhaps across generations.

If we array the realms of trust against the manifestations of trust, as shown below, we can begin to have a structured conversation about trust.

Trust Realms and Trust Manifestations

Manifestation/Realm

Trusting

Being trusted

State of Trust
Personal      
Organizational      
Social      

 Until then, we are going to have vague, or circular, or meaningless discussions about trust.

When Steven H.R. Covey talks about how trust affects speed and cost, he is largely talking about the manifestion dimension—the presence or absence of a state of trust. But is he talking about the state of personal trust? Or organizational? Or cultural/social?

Gatehouse, a UK communications consultancy, says “business is facing a massive and global crisis of trust right now.”  But what are they talking about?  Which manifestation?  Which realm?  Or are we descending into an inevitable and inescapable downward spiral of rampant anarchy? 

Do they mean that individuals are less trusting of business? Or that more businesses are untrustworthy? Or that the state of economic uncertainty has rendered the state of trust lower?

Paul Seaman’s review of the Edelman Trust Surveys (Would you trust a trust survey?) does a nice job of taking apart the apparent meaning of trust survey data.  A small example: trust in banks is down, trust in government is up: does that mean we want the government to take over banks?

These are not word games.  Intelligent policy formulation depends on being able to clearly define problems. For example:

• When is structural regulation preferable to greater enforcement?
• For what trust issues is transparency an appropriate remedy?
• Do we have any institutions that teach the personal manifestation of trusting?
• If you change personal and organizational trustworthiness, do you have to worry about social trust?

We’re entering a period where trust has gone viral; it’s got buzz. We’re about to see more survey data, telling us with greater and greater precision whether doctors are gaining on nurses in trust ratings, who has the most trusted brand name, and whether trust in Romanian economists went up or down in October. 

Watch out for conflicts of interest: who’s paying for a ranking of trustworthy companies?   What problem is being solved?  What issues are being addressed?

Get ready for many tales, full of sound and fury, signifying—well, just what? That is the question.