A search of Google Scholar indicates that books and journal papers to do with trust, organisations and leadership numbered a few hundred per annum during the 1960s, jumping to the low thousands during the 1970s, and approaching 10,000 per annum in the 1990s. During the early years of this century the number of publications has numbered around an average of 40,000 per year. These numbers indicate a major increase in, and concern about, the presence and role of trust in organisational life, including the exercise of leadership. In this note I want to give a brief indication of how this issue is approached in the management literature and how it is approached in the sociology literature. To aid in the comparing and contrasting I will draw on Hosmer’s[i] classification of four different approaches to understanding trust:
- Trust as an optimistic individual expectation, focusing on expectations that others will perform in competent and morally correct ways.
- Trust as an interpersonal relation, focusing on the dependence of the trustors on the trustees to respect the trustors’ interests. The relationship is one of vulnerability for the trustor.
- Trust as a rational decision to do with protecting one’s interests made after risk analysis or a calculation in terms of economic transactions costs (which I will not cover in this note).
- Trust and social structure.
Views on trust to be found in the management and organizational literature[ii]
A brief scan of how many management consultants refer to trust reveals that they view trust as the ability of people to be open and honest based on the belief that others are competent, open, honest, reliable, and committed to common goals, norms and values. Trust means confidence in the integrity, agenda, and capabilities of others, as well as their track records based on past actions. Trust is of importance to organizations because it is the basis of cooperation, which makes it more possible for employees to do more, so increasing efficiency and decreasing cost. Little or no trust creates a hostile, toxic work environment where productivity is limited and people cannot live up to good values. Building, developing and repairing trust is thought by many management consultants to be largely the job of the leader. To build trust, leaders must carry out their obligations and display competent performance that fulfils expectations based on a track record of achieving results. They must show integrity, consistency, honesty and make sure that their word is as good as gold, as well as developing positive relationships with workers. People need to have leaders who do right by them, not leaders they need to second guess. The leader needs to hold others accountable, establish boundaries, build a learning organization, practice tough love, walk the talk, and practice high touch.
Turning to a more academic view, for example, that of Robert Hurley, professor at Fordham University, we find that he regards trust as a form of social capital which enhances cooperation across organisations.[iii] For him, drawing on the large literature on trust in organizations, trust is ‘a willingness to make yourself vulnerable to someone else, based on positive expectations that the other person will either serve your interests or at least not hinder them’.[iv] Trust is confident reliance on others and it is a decision that people make, one which they sometimes get wrong through a failure to understand the nature of trust. Getting it wrong has something to do with an inability to explain in clear, rational terms what trust is and instead rely on emotions and gut feelings which often come to outweigh the data. He presents a spectrum stretching from distrust, the suspicion zone where cooperation and commitment is low and anxiety high, to trust, where people flourish with feelings of commitment and comfort. He sets out the trust decision process which is activated when uncertainty and vulnerability are high – when outcomes are predictable there is no need for trust. The trust decision process is one where individuals make rational decisions about trusting another in a particular context. He distinguishes between relational trust which is interpersonal and organizational and system trust which is understood from an impersonal perspective and he provides a model to assess basic trust in people, teams and organizations. The model consists of three trustor factors (risk tolerance, adjustment and power) and seven situational factors (security, similarities, interests, benevolent concern, capability, predictability/integrity, and communication). The model enables people to identify where to apply effort to build trust through rational processes of identifying who the trustors and trustees are and targeting relationships where trust is needed. It involves carefully defining who the stakeholders are and conducting a thorough analysis of trust. The competencies required for building trust are a mindset of clinical pragmatism rather than emotion and a communication skill set enabling the conduct of difficult conversations. Leaders play a major role through showing care for others and communicating in straightforward, open ways so as to encourage others to be open too.
A brief scan of management journal papers by academics reveals claims that participation in decision making, feedback from and to employees, and empowerment of employees lead to increased interpersonal trust between supervisors and employees. These trust-building practices between supervisors and workers can lead to increased productivity and strengthened organizational commitment. It is often claimed that general trust evolves from a pattern of careful, rational thinking (cognitive-based) coupled with an examination of one’s feelings, instincts and intuition (affect-based). Generalized trust, which is an ideological belief about the trustworthiness of others in general, precedes institution-building and serves as a form of social capital.
In summary, it can be seen that the management and organisational literature primarily views trust as the belief and confidence individuals have in other individuals and also in other people in general. Trust, therefore is being understood from the point of view of personal expectations and interpersonal relations, generally making little reference to trust in terms of social structure and even when they do, as in generalised trust, it is still the role of leaders to build trust. There is a tendency to talk about trust as a relationship between managers / leaders and employees, rather than as general social interaction involving everyone. There is also a tendency to focus on individuals even when taking a relational view and to think of trust as either a rational process ideally excluding emotion or combing rational process with rather idealised emotions of a ‘good’ kind. Finally, as with almost with everything else in a largely managerialist literature, it is the role of the leader to build trust.
Views on trust to be found in the literature of sociology
The discipline of sociology takes a very different view of trust to that found in the dominant management discourse. Instead of focusing on individuals and their interpersonal relations, we find that attention is focused on social structure. For example, Piotr Sztomka, an academic sociologist, developed an influential sociological theory of trust based on his view of society, which he holds in common with commentator Francis Fukuyama[v] and sociologist Barbara Misztal,[vi] as a coalition of interests and moral bonds. Social ties are maintained not only by rational calculations around interests but also, more importantly, by ethical responsibilities. Common moral obligations define a group, an ‘us’, characterised by belonging, trust, responsibility and duties to others. The basic components of a moral community are trust as the expectation we have that others will conduct themselves towards ourselves in a virtuous manner; loyalty is defined as the obligation to refrain from breaching the trust others have in us; and solidarity which is caring for the interests of others in the sense of being prepared to take action on their behalf even when it conflicts with our own interests. So instead of treating trust as a personal attitude, the sociological view sees it as a trait of interpersonal relationships which reflect social structures. As society becomes more complex, uncertain and risky trust becomes more and more important. When we can predict with certainty (e.g. the sun will set at a particular time) then there is no need for trust. When we cannot predict with certainty we have to rely on trust and trust relates to people not objects. Trust is linked with uncertainty and the uncontrollability of the future because when we cannot predict the actions of others we have to rely on trust – trust is a bet about the future contingent actions of others. Trust is based on theories about how others will act and it makes the future relatively more certain and controllable. Sztompka argues for moving from the sharp distinction between interpersonal trust, a face-to-face form of trust in which we undertake mutual commitments to those we know, and social trust when we do not know the others involved. Instead, like Fukuyama,[vii] he thinks in terms of expanding concentric circles of trust. The most abstract form of trust is that of trusting the social system, the social order, the regime in much the same way as Giddens[viii] does. Trust is more than a personal disposition or a rational choice; it is a relationship, a cultural rule. He argues that trust is neither intrinsically good nor bad.
Sztomka argues that:
The process of the emergence of trust is just an instance of a more general process through which cultures, social structures, normative systems, institutions, organizations and all other macro-social entities come to be shaped and crystallized.[ix]
The positive experiences of confirmed trust generate a culture of trust while negative experiences of breached trust generate a culture of mistrust. Sztompka identifies five macro-societal factors which are conducive to a culture of trust:
- Normative coherence, by which he means coherent laws, moralities and customs which make social life more secure, orderly and predictable.
- The stability of the social order by which he means the persistent, continuous and long lasting networks of groups, associations, institutions, organizations and regimes.
- The transparency of the social organization by which he means the availability of information about the functioning, efficiency, and achievements which create feelings of security.
- Familiarity of the environment in which people undertake their actions.
- The accountability of other people and institutions.
Barbara Misztal[x], another sociologist well known in the area of trust, conceptualises trust as the
… routine background to everyday interaction through which the predictability, legibility and reliability of collective order is sustained, while the perception of its complexity and uncertainty is restricted.’[xi]
She refers to Bourdieu’s notion of habitus which is systems of durable, transposable dispositions and so the structuring mechanism of trust.
We can see how sociologists regard trust as much more than personal expectations or interpersonal relationships and the much more is that trust is a quality that emerges in ongoing social interactions and as such cannot be designed by any individual or group of individuals. They move from rational choices of individuals to believe and have confidence in others to expectations in general, loyalty and solidarity. Instead of being an outcome of a rational decision, trust emerges in social interaction. From this perspective, trust is processes of relating which shape and are at the same time shaped by the habitus, that is, the world of habit in which we live. However, this literature does recognise personal and relational levels of trust in the same way as the organisational literature does.
Trust and mistrust
From time to management writers discussing trust mention its opposite, namely, mistrust or distrust. It is taken to be the role of leaders to move an organisation from states of mistrust, and the suspicion they generate, to those of trust. The sociologists have more to say about mistrust but I want to draw attention to the positive aspects of mistrust and point to the negative aspects of trust. There is a widespread view from all perspectives that trust enhances cooperation and it arises when people are committed to the same laws, morals and customs so establishing stable social orders which make the actions of others more predictable. The management writers also link these conditions to higher productivity, greater efficiency and lower costs. However, these very conditions of stability and greater predictability are not conducive to change. Social life is both stable and unstable at the same time and because of this there can never be an ongoing uniformity of trust. Different ideologies, different identities and differences in power relations will always generate conflict and so instability that generates mistrust. An important insight provided by the complexity sciences is that it is only when agents differ from each other and pursue different strategies that patterns of relationships and activities can evolve. High degrees of continuing trust would trap a group in a highly repetitive stuck state in which doing anything creative or innovative would be extremely difficult. It is only when people differ from each other that they can generate creativity but such difference is bound the generate mistrust as well. In organisational terms this means that mistrust, distrust and suspicion are as important as trust, commitment and belief in others. To go even further, it is clear that trust has a dark side which becomes evident when we reflect on the term ‘blind trust’. Blind trust is a striking feature of destructive cults where members have blind faith in one leader or even some idea. Cults, inevitably characterised by blind trust, lead people to kill those who fail to conform and in the end they are even prepared to kill themselves rather than abandon the cult.
The points I have been making in the above paragraph are illuminated by a provocative paper about ‘a stupidity-based theory of organizations’ developed by the critical management writers Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer.[xii]
In developing ideas around stupidity in organizations Alvesson and Spicer are reacting to the relentlessly positive interpretation of knowledge creating organizations, smart organizations and the repeated prescriptions to upgrade knowledge capabilities in today’s competitive world of knowledge-intensive activities. A taken-for-granted, grandiose picture is painted of organizations whose members strive to be smart and increase their knowledge in the interests of their organizations. In the actual experience of people in organizations this idealised picture is frequently far from what organizational members are doing. To capture what people are frequently doing the authors propose the concept of ‘functional stupidity’ in organizations. They define stupidity as processes of inability or unwillingness to process knowledge reflected in a lack of:
reflexivity, that is, inquiry into what people are actually doing and how they have come to do it in the way they do. The result is that people do not question dominant beliefs but simply take all the rules, routines and norms as given, natural and good;
- justification, that is, demanding reasons and explanations. The result is that people do not examine take-for-granted ways of acting but simply act out conformity;
- substantive reasoning, that is, inquiring into what the ends to be achieved are. The consequence is that people simply apply instrumental reasoning in myopic ways.
Stupidity is not due to a lack of knowledge, which is ignorance, and it may not be due to a lack of intelligence; it is due more to an inability or unwillingness to process knowledge in a particular situation at a particular time. Functional stupidity is organizationally-supported stupidity. In other words, the culture or habitus of an organization may be such as to block inquiry and confine the use of intellectual resources to a narrow range of topics. Members of organizations usually know what it is safe to say in the ‘public transcripts’ and what must be muttered quietly in the ‘hidden transcripts’.[xiii] Alvesson and Spicer argue that functional stupidity is not necessarily negative. A habitus which blocks inquiry and reflection spares members from experiencing the conflict, friction and doubt that these processes generate and creates instead a climate of certainty and unquestioned belief in the organization’s leaders. This can be very beneficial in terms of the smooth functioning of the organization and the progression of members’ careers but, of course, the price being paid for this is the trapping of organizational members in patterns of thinking that become increasingly ineffective as the world changes and people find that they are having to adapt and take actions which may be countercultural. Countercultural actions lead to a dissonance in members’ experience of what they find themselves doing and what they are supposed to be doing. This dissonance could provoke reflexivity. Returning to the positive aspects of functional stupidity, the authors explain how processes of functional stupidity remove contradictory experiences for people and enable them to maintain a positive worldview. These processes create the belief that managers are sincere and that they know what they are doing; both beliefs are thought to be beneficial for the organisation.
In other words functional stupidity has the same consequences as trust. Trust is often defined in popular management literature as confidence in the integrity and ability of others, particularly managers and leaders, and development and encouragement of trust is taken to be the job of the leaders. This literature presents prescriptions for developing trust which call for openness and honesty between organizational members. In other words, the management literature suggests that trust will be developed if people act in ways which are not functionally stupid. The concept of functional stupidity therefore serves the useful purpose of making us aware that trust is not simply good, a quality to be secured by open dialogue and communal commitment to honesty and reliability. Trust, as confidence in leaders and others, can be developed, for a time at least, by processes which are the exact opposite of openness and honesty. So how does functional stupidity constitute trust?
Alvesson and Spicer point to how stupidity management and stupidity self-management create the conditions of confidence which is normally taken to be trust.
In sum, stupidity management involves a wide range of actors seeking to restrict and distort communicative action through the use of power. This can occur through direct interventions, agenda setting, propagating broader ideological beliefs, and creating subject positions.[xiv]
Some of the ways in which managers and leaders restrict communication are by asserting that employees should only criticise if they have a better suggestion and asserting an ideology in which people are required to be positive and not complain. Stupidity management constrains individuals from using their cognitive capacities in processes that amount to stupidity self-management.
Negative aspects of organisational life, including doubts about the meaningfulness of work and production, are marginalized. This encourages a relatively coherent and positive self-narrative that generates a sense of faith and optimism on the part of organizational members. It means also that individuals are likely to avoid interaction and communication when there are doubts or critique, or when justifications are called for. This ultimately creates a sense of certainty and consistency.
It is striking how closely the definitions of stupidity management and stupidity self-management are to the most commonly found definitions of trust but the way in which trust is achieved is the direct opposite of that proposed in the dominant management discussion. The dominant discourse calls for openness as the means for generating trust but the concept of organisational stupidity points to how these conditions of openness are just as likely to produce the effects of mistrust while refusing to be open and to think could well generate conditions usually claimed for trust.
Complex responsive processes of trust and mistrust
In terms of the theory of complex responsive processes both trust, which can take the form of organisational stupidity or a cult, and mistrust, which can lead to social breakdown, are patterns of interaction emerging across a population. As with all other population-wide patterns of relating, emerging patterns of trust and mistrust arise in many, many local interactions. Such local interactions take the form of conversation, figurations of power relations expressed in the dynamics of inclusion, exclusion and identity formation, and ideologically based intentions and choices. These responsive processes are expressed in ordinary everyday organisational politics which is the way in which get done everything we do. It is in these political activities that we make practical judgments, make both useful and foolish decisions, exercise both insightful reflexivity and organisational stupidity, act selfishly and altruistically, express emotions and defend against anxiety. All of these complex responsive processes of local interaction are formed by the habitus while at the same time they form the habitus. The habitus is the evolving world of habit in which we live. Habitus and related concepts of game, social background, lifeworld, generalised other, social object, culture and social structure are dynamic phenomena in which continuity, stability, tradition and social order are continually iterated in somewhat repetitive ways but also always, at the same time, in slightly different ways which have the potential for escalating as creativity, change, instability, disruption and social disorder. Trust and mistrust are key patterns of relationship in these dynamic social processes and we all participate in their emergence through our ways of relating to each other. Leaders, toward whom power ratios are always titled, have relatively more impact on our ways of relating because they are more powerful, more visible and have particular symbolic importance for us. However, such impact may turn out to be beneficial or highly destructive and no matter how powerful no leader can simply create a culture of trust.
The theory of complex responsive processes draws on the views of George Herbert Mead and Norbert Elias to move away from the ideas of individuals, groups, organisations and societies being at different levels. The distinction made in both the management and sociological literature between individual, relational and general trust therefore fades away. Instead we have Elias’ concept of a society of interdependent individuals where the individual is the singular form of interdependent individuals and the social is the plural of the same phenomenon. For Mead, individual mind and self are social phenomena in which every individual has similar tendencies to act in similar situations. Mead expresses this by saying that in all our interactions with each other we try to take account of the responses to our gestures might evoke in others and this means taking account not simply of specific individuals but of the group or society in which we live. Every individual act is therefore expressing the generalised other or habitus. Trust and mistrust are aspects of the habitus emerging and being dynamically sustained in many, many local interactions. This is a very different view to that which thinks of trust in terms of autonomous rational individuals choosing to trust or mistrust. From the complex responsive processes point of view it is highly misleading to think of trust in terms of rational, or even highly emotional, choices which independent individuals make.
The theory of complex responsive processes recognises the fundamental uncertainty of organisational and social life and explores how people cope with this. Since we cannot determine outcomes in advance of acting we cannot provide universal, general prescriptions for securing trust or even mistrust. Instead we have to rely on practical judgment developed through experience to choose particular actions in particular situations at particular times in the hope that we will be helping to generate good enough degrees of both trust and mistrust. We place our trust or mistrust in the habitus in which we live. We express this habitus as we act and we expect that others will also do so. So it is not a requirement for the existence of social order that individuals trust or mistrust other individuals. We can cope with the inevitable uncertainty of how specific others may respond to us if we can rely on social institutions to constrain all of us from enacting contraventions of the habitus. Trust and trustworthiness are not individual decisions but are patterns emerging in our interactions in which what we do is constrained by guilt, shame, threat of exclusion, prospects of punishment if we contravene the customs and laws, and many other institutional factors. It is the disciplinary society in which we live that keeps us in check and relieves us from having to continually calculate whether to trust or not particular individuals. It is only when widespread mistrust of social intuitions emerges that we sink into anarchy. So general prescriptions for leaders to be open and honest are unlikely to have much effect and leaders will not be able to create trust since they cannot design the habitus.
Alvesson, M. & Spicer, A. (2012) A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations, Journal of management Studies, 49:7, pp1194-1220.
Cook, K. ed. (2001) Trust in Society, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Greiling, D. (2007) Trust and Performance Management in Non-Profit Organizations, The Innovation Journal: Public sector Innovation Journal, 12: 3, 1-23.
Fukuyama, F. (1995) Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, New York: Free Press.
Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self Identity, Stanford CA: Stanford University Press.
Hardin, R. (2008) Trust, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Hope, J., Bunce, P. & Roosli (2011) The Leaders dilemma: How to build an empowered and adaptive organization without losing control, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Hosmer, L. (1996) Trust: The Connecting Link between Organizational Theory and Philosophical ethics, Academy of Management Review, 20(2), 379-403.
Hurley, R. (2012) The Decision to Trust: How Leaders Create High-Trust Organizations, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Misztal, B. (1996) Trust in Modern Societies, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Scott, J. C. (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, New Haven: Yale University Press.
Sztompka, P. (1999) Trust: A Sociological Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[i] Hosmer (1996)
[ii] For example: Hurley (2012) and Hope, Bunce & Roosli (2011)
[iii] Hurley (2012)
[iv] Ibid. p25
[v] Fukuyama (1995)
[vi] Misztal (1996)
[vii] Fukuyama (1995)
[viii] Giddens (1991)
[ix] Sztomka (1999) p119
[x] Misztal (1996)
[xi] Ibid. p97
[xii] Alvesson & Spicer (2012)
[xiii] Scott (1990)
[xiv] Alvesson & Spicer (2012) p1207