A Question Of Trust. #WorkingOutLoud #Research

I’m exploring the notion of trust, some early stage work to provide a baseline and to identify areas for more detailed research. Why trust? Because it’s a much used word with a very loosely defined meaning, and because types of trust are central to many aspects of the Social Age. Social leaders earn the trust that they are rewarded through their actions within their communities. In social learning, we learn within and alongside communities and require high levels of trust to fully engage. In my more recent work on the Socially Dynamic Organisation, I talk about cocreated and co-owned change, but that change must happen with a foundation trust, a trust that the organisation will be fair in the way that it deals with change. I’m #WorkingOutLoud as I develop these ideas.

Trust Survey Results

To kick things off I’ve been doing some survey work with limited populations and will be sharing some of the initial results as I form my ideas. The piece I want to look at today asked the question, “Do you have trust in the organisation that you work for”, and gave four options: ‘total trust’, ‘some trust’, ‘low trust’, and ‘no trust’.

The question was asked in an open forum, on Twitter, and had 366 responses, so whilst unrepresentative, it does provide a baseline, and I will replicate this in other forum to see if results broadly correlate. I was somewhat surprised by the initial response.

16% of respondents expressed total trust in the organisation they work for. 30% had some trust. That gives us a total of 46% of respondents sitting on the positive side of the fence, although with a relatively low number expressing total trust.

20% of respondents said they had low trust in the organisation that they work for, and 34% have no trust at all. So 54% of respondents have low or no trust, with the highest majority stating that they have no trust at all. To me this was a surprising result: I expected more people would hedge their bets in the some trust, or low trust brackets.

We can speculate on a range of reasons why there is this skew towards very low trust. The survey is anonymous and therefore an easy place to express dissent with no consequence: just by expressing that we have no trust in the organisation does not mean we do not exhibit trust -like behaviours. In other words what we are measuring is not a lack of trust per se, but rather an expressed lack of trust that may not translate into actions. We should not take too much comfort from this, because clearly the expression itself of no trust indicates some kind of social discontent and foundational problem within some organisations today.

I’m looking at a range of ways to expand this work out. One obvious thing to do is to explore what trust actually means to people: how will they see the organisation behave when it trusts them, and how will they behave when they have high trust in the organisation. In other words, what do we actually lose in practical terms if the people who work in an organisation have low or no trust. Do they simply express dissent and continue to work as effectively as before, or is something missing?

My hypothesis is that organisations with low trust or no trust are substantially disadvantaged when it comes to being Socially Dynamic. Much of the interaction within communities, the sense making and sharing, requires high levels of trust, because it requires high levels of disclosure, high levels of support, much nurturing, and a high permission to fail in certain spaces with no consequence. I suspect that sense of consequence and expectation of punishment will closely correlate to sense of trust.

The Socially Dynamic Organisation

One reason for looking at what trust actually means to people is to categorise types of trust, and it’s this that I hope to do from this work. My initial hypothesis is that there are layers trust, and that each incremental layer is harder to attain, but delivers higher rewards. It’s effectively a gradient from very basic levels of trust that allow the organisation to function, through to very high levels of trust, consistently felt, that allow the organisation to be truly Socially Dynamic, highly adaptable, and able to thrive.

For the moment, I’m working with two definitions: functional trust, and invested trust, although I expect to broaden these categories over time. Functional trust is a foundational type of trust required for the organisation to be coherent and work at any level. It’s the expectation that you will be paid at the end of the month. It’s the expectation that nobody will steal things from your desk drawer every day. It’s the expectation that at some fundamental level the organisation is at worst indifferent to you as a person, not actively hostile towards you. Whilst in comfortable Western spaces this may be taken for granted, I suspect there are plenty of organisations operating without functional trust, organisations that rely overly much on systems of control and manifestations of power to maintain momentum.

Functional trust is unable to deliver the Socially Dynamic Organisation, to do that, we need an invested type of trust. Invested trust goes beyond the foundations: it would be expressed as some kind of added sense of value, some sense of belonging and community, some sense that the organisation actively nurtures us and values us, a sense that the community around us brings positive capability and energy, high social capital.

I’m already carrying out some follow-up survey work, asking people to use words to describe what trust means to them at work, to ask how valued people feel. I hope to paint a landscape upon which trust is formed, and to explore some kind of baseline to see the key areas we need to focus on to earn trust, and to fully understand the consequences when we lack trust. At a basic level, I’d like to bring some clarity, at least in my own thinking, to such a subjective term.

If you’d like to take part in the early stage survey work, you can find the polls on Twitter. From this early work, I will create a broader survey tool in Survey Monkey, and share that here in time.


About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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11 Responses to A Question Of Trust. #WorkingOutLoud #Research

  1. hvanameyde says:

    Really interesting blog. Unfortunately I think the performance management (PM) system in many organisations undermines trust. There are often better relationships outside official PM hierarchies as bonuses and positional power play a role in decision making, coaching, feedback and development conversations.

    • julianstodd says:

      I strongly agree Helen, i think that PM systems are often experienced as a betrayal of trust. Thanks for being part of the community here and sharing your reflections, best wishes, Julian

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