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by means of an analogy
The other day I came across an article from the Atlantic titled, “The End of Trust”. It made me think, and thinking made me write this post.
Trust is awkward
Trust is a topic for the ages, but nowadays it’s especially pertinent with the trend towards remote work. Many companies are coming to terms with that trend being here to stay. Consequently, a reckoning is taking place around trust in the workplace.
However, trust is awkward to talk about.
Who wants to ask, “do you trust me?”
Who wants to say, “I’m losing my trust in you”.
Such statements are not exactly inspiring.
This is where analogies are useful. I struggle with abstractions, especially when it comes to abstractions that represent concepts having to do with interpersonal relationships. Analogies add a kind of imagined concreteness that I can get a foothold on and feel a bit less awkward about navigating.
Trust is a belief
So onto trust, then. The dictionary definition follows:
A firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.
Let’s start with the word, “belief”. Most of our experiences are based on “belief”, even when our beliefs are so ingrained in our daily lives that we don’t think of them as such.
I believe the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has (since the dawn of civilization on this planet, in any case).
I believe that my coffee mug will fall and spill when I knock it over for a similar reason (though Newton’s Laws give me added confidence).
I believe the clerk at the grocery store will give me the right amount of change as that is their job, and they are using a Point-of-Sale system that will prevent them from making any mistakes.
Belief underpins our day-to-day experience. We’d be paralyzed without it. But we take most beliefs for granted. If we scope it to beliefs in the behaviours between two individuals, this is where an analogy for trust might be useful.
Trust between individuals
In the case of our cashier, what if the Point-of-Sale system was out-of-order, and if they added the totals by hand? How would that change our beliefs? This is where the second part of the definition of trust comes into play: a reliability or ability of someone. Our belief in the reliability of the outcome just went down due to the broken Point-of-Sale unit. Consequently, we may find ourselves questioning whether they are able to add up the totals correctly.
Now, let’s say that they appear flustered, rushing through your order due to the long lineup behind you. How does that affect our trust in the cashier being able to do their job? More specifically, can we still trust that they’ll give us the correct change back? Whether we realize it or not, we’re now evaluating the individual and their circumstances, and deciding whether or not we should continue to trust them.
Trust is a decision
Therefore, trust is a decision as much as it is a belief. Most beliefs are taken for granted; otherwise, we’d live our lives in neurotic paranoia. On the other hand, trust in another person is an active belief — one that involves having to decide, “do I still trust this person?”.
This does not mean that we should continually question our trust in others. In fact, such behaviour is often dysfunctional, especially when observed in ostensibly close relationships (e.g. amongst spouses, and important professional relationships).
Nonetheless, the question eventually comes up of its own accord. Whether it’s the cashier with the broken-down Point-of-Sale unit, or the co-worker who hasn’t messaged you back when they said they would. Questions of trust inevitably arise. When they do, that’s when we can decide what to do about them.
Imagine you and I are each on our own ice floe, drifting in a frigid ocean. We communicate with each other by passing a message in a bottle over to each other. At first, the two ice floes start off close together, but then they begin to drift apart. It gets increasingly difficult for me to pass a message over to you. At one point, the two of us are so far apart that I don’t want to risk it — if I lose the bottle, then we’ve lost the means to communicate forever.
In this analogy, trust is the ability to pass the bottle from one person to another. Once the distance is too great and the bottle can’t be passed, that’s when trust is “lost”.
When the distance is small, trust is easy. If the ice floes are close enough, you can just hand over the bottle to me. Over larger distances, every time you need to pass over the bottle, you must ask yourself: “is it going to make it over?”
Applying the analogy
Let’s try applying the analogy. What could “distance” mean, when we think about the trust between two individuals? Let’s go back to the example of the cashier.
In the initial situation, the distance was small. We can trust a cashier to do their job without thinking about it. Once the Point-of-Sale unit broke down, the distance grew. We found ourselves questioning our trust.
How could we go back to a shorter distance?
What could the cashier do? Use a calculator. Shut the lane down and ask people to go to one with a functioning Point-of-Sale. Is there anything we could have done? We could reassure the cashier to take their time, that we’re not in a rush.
Let’s use another example. What about the co-worker that didn’t get you that report you requested on time? What could they have done? Told you that they’re running late, and give you a reason. What could you have done? Check whether they took a sick day today.
The professional context
The dictionary definition of trust talks about reliability and ability. In the professional context, this article references two additional factors — character and competence. Let’s see how this can apply to the analogy.
What distances could stress our trust in another individual, if they were increased? Here are some that come to mind:
Literal distance (we work remotely)
Social distance (we never interact socially)
Contextual distance (I don’t know what they’re working on)
Understanding-of-competence distance (I don’t know how they do what they do)
This is not an exhaustive list, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on what else could be added to it.
Trustworthiness vs “trust-affirming-ness”
When we typically think of trust, we think of the trustworthiness of the trustee. What should they do to strengthen our trust in them? Less often, do we ask ourselves what we can do. What trust-affirming behaviour can we engage in, as the truster?
Thinking of trust in terms of distance implies an equal responsibility on both parties to bridge the gap and ultimately, maintain trust.
Talking about trust will probably always be awkward, but perhaps thinking of it this way helps balance the onus of it.