Illusion of Trust: The Terms and Conditions of Equality

I had an email from AirBnB last week, relating to their Community Commitment: they describe this commitment as a comprehensive effort to fight bias and discrimination within the AirBnB community, which is a valuable and commendable effort. What got me thinking was not the intention behind the effort, but rather the action around it, specifically in relation to the Triangle of Trust work I shared last week. As a user of the site, when I next login, I will be asked to press a button to accept the Community Commitment.

The Illustion of Trust

By pressing this button, I will commit to ‘treat everyone, regardless of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age, with respect, and without judgement or bias’. If I choose not to accept, my account will be deleted. In the Triangle of Trust work I explore how a gap opens up between my values, intention, action, and impact. We can be highly aligned in terms of intention, but misaligned around impact, because intention is not deterministic of impact. Whilst I applaud the intention of a Community Commitment, I don’t believe that forcing people to accept it as if it was simply more terms and conditions of the site is the way to achieve the intent.

Landscape of Trust - Triangle of Trust

This is frequently a challenge with organisations view of culture: they assert an aspiration of culture, whilst we all live within the grinding reality. Signing up to the aspirational culture, sometimes called a subscription culture, means I am aligned within the organisation’s view, whilst in fact I maintain my membership of the lived culture. In the real world, nothing has changed, and I fear that is the risk of a Community Commitment that I have to click to accept.

I feel I must stress again that this effort is clearly well-intentioned, so I offer this perspective simply as part of my thinking of how we truly transform culture and effect coherence within community.

The illusion of trust is based upon an aspiration to be trusted, it’s based upon intent, and is often expressed as a statement. The experience of trust is the one that is lived, it’s about the impact, caused by, but not determined by, the intention. It is the felt value of trust.

Similarly, bias and discrimination are judged by the experience: if our lived experience is one of discrimination, then we are being discriminated against. If we have an impact of bias, then there is bias. If we feel inequality, then there is inequality.

It’s fine to start with an intent, an aspiration to change. But we must close the gap between intent and transformation: in this context it must be through a process of discussion, not simply a statement and action based upon intent.

There is also something about where the action is rooted: I am passionate about equality, about tackling discrimination and bias, but I won’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that any company can tell me how to do that, and I’m left with something of a sense that the organisation is trying to claim the moral high ground, indeed I may be left with a sense that if I do not sign their commitment, then somehow I am contributing to the problem.


I’m drawing a link between this email and the work on trust because I see parallels. When I presented the trust work a few weeks ago I had a challenge from someone within the organisation: as I presented the research and evidence, they stated that it was very interesting, but not true within their organisation, where they had high trust, and no development need. This is challenging: the research, whilst only preliminary so far, showed that 54% of people have low or no trust in the organisation they work for. Simply asserting that it is otherwise does not make it so. Much as asserting that we have no bias or discrimination does not make it so. Whilst I’m sure that many organisations perform better than this 54%, and that many perform worse, simple assertions or aspirations are merely part of the illusion.

AirBnB is to be applauded and encouraged for taking a stance around discrimination and bias, and I hope it inspires more organisations to do so. But if I were to encourage them to take a further step, it would be to move beyond aspiration and into engagement. I’ve written a series of pieces around an imperfect humanity: exploring the challenges of finding a equality within a globally diversified world. For example, I believe strongly in gender equality, and I’m right to do so, but for other people in other cultures, my views are wrong. They hold different views which are wrong by my standards, but right by theirs. We are both operating from a position that we believe to be right.

Asserting that my position is right will not engage them. Agreeing that their position is right would be to abandon my authenticity. Ultimately, unless we believe that liberal Western values will colonise the world, we are likely to end up in some middle space where we are unified with respect, whilst divided by some aspects of our cultures. Is this perfect? Far from it, but we exist as an imperfect humanity.

An imperfect humanity

For example, within the United Kingdom, in Northern Ireland, abortion is still illegal. A young woman can be taken to court for seeking an abortion, or travelling to have one. The notion that religious or legal authority can take away a woman’s basic right to choose is anathema to me. It’s a matter of shame that the United Kingdom is unable to deliver true equality for women. And yet I can still click the button that allows me to book a houseboat in Amsterdam. Accepting the terms and conditions does not drive the change. Engaging in the debate and taking action does. If an organisation truly wanted to drive change, they could engage in that debate to: this is a challenge many global organisations face, deciding if they will operate in areas whose values are not aligned to their own. This is the decision that Google faces operating in China, and maybe the decision that AirBnB faces if operating in Northern Ireland.

So start with the intent, but to move beyond an illusion, we have to engage in the real debate, and ultimately we have to be prepared to take action.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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4 Responses to Illusion of Trust: The Terms and Conditions of Equality

  1. Pingback: The Social Age Safari 2017 – A Co-Created Conference | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  2. Great piece. The missing component in the engagement is *consent*. Without consent there can be no trust.



  3. Pingback: Dynamic Tension | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  4. Pingback: The Erosion and Rebuilding of Culture | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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