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  • Writer's pictureDiana Palmerín Velasco

Are You Building Trust or Undermining It?

Think for a moment about the people you trust the most in your life. Now think about all the factors involved in building that trust. It’s likely the kind of trust that is coming to mind is what social psychologists call relational trust and not the generalized trust needed for society to function. Relational trust is experienced during the life of an ongoing relationship with someone, and it is weakened or strengthened by the prolonged interactions you have with that particular individual.

In the past few months, I have been thinking about a phrase that resonates strongly with my professional experience - “change happens at the speed of trust”. I am not sure who coined this phrase, but in 2008, Stephen M.R. Covey published the bestselling book “The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything”. In this book, Covey argues that in organizational settings, trust (or lack of) always affects speed and cost. In low-trust contexts, everything takes longer and costs are higher. Ironically, we know that building and establishing trust is not a simple and speedy process, it usually takes a long time!

The events of the months since the killing of George Floyd have made me (re)think the importance of effectively dealing with trust situations. Witnessing institutions and organizations’ attempts to catch up with justice, equity, diversity and inclusion without addressing issues of trust and distrust is not a promising path. The kind of trust required of this moment should not be taken lightly.

For some organizations, this might be the first time engaging in these issues, others might have been trying to get it right for years. However, we are not starting from a blank slate, there is a long history and an awful amount of systemic and systematic harm done. In many situations trust has been broken too many times. So, how to build a strong foundation characterized by high-trust? How to build the kind of trust that will speed up the change that the times demand?

In 1995, Mayer, Davis and Schoorman published in The Academy Management Review their influential model of organizational trust[1]. They define trust as “the willingness to be vulnerable to another party”. Since then, much research has been produced in the study of trust. However, most of the existent research in the field continues highlighting the three critical factors of perceived trustworthiness considered by Mayer, Davis and Schoorman’s model. These factors are:

· Ability “…is that group of skills, competencies and characteristics that enable a party to have influence within some specific domain”.

· Benevolence “is the perception of a positive orientation of the trustee towards the trustor”. Or in other words, a genuine desire for positive outcomes for the counterparty.

· Integrity is related to “…the trustor’s perception that the trustee adheres to a set of principles that the trustor finds acceptable…. Such issues as the consistency of the party's past actions, credible communications about the trustee from other parties, belief that the trustee has a strong sense of justice, and the extent to which the party's actions are congruent with his or her words all affect the degree to which the party is judged to have integrity”.

Considering these three factors, are you creating environments that build trust? Or, are you creating environments that undermine it? Research tell us that trustworthiness exists in a continuum where factors that influence it can (and do) vary along it. The urgency that characterizes many organizational challenges doesn’t always allow for trustors to have enough data on trustees to decide if they score highly or not on ability, benevolence and integrity.

Mayer, Davis and Schoorman clearly state that the effect of integrity on trust will likely be most salient early in the relationship. In this sense, how does integrity manifests in your organizational culture? What is your organizational reputation when it comes to issues of justice, diversity, equity and inclusion? How are your employees, clients and other stakeholders experiencing these issues? Do you have policies and procedures to support an inclusive workplace? Do you walk the walk, or is it just about talking the talk?

Research on trust has proliferated in recent years and there is too much to try to cover in a blog post. However, I would like to encourage you to critically reflect on how others might perceive your trustworthiness when it comes to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. Some things to keep in mind:

- Relational trust is not a given, it must be earned and maintained.

- Feelings, thoughts and beliefs play a role, but the most important aspect to build trust is what you do. Behaviours and actions take central stage.

- There is a relationship between trust and reciprocity. The more you trust others, the more likely they will trust you.

We cannot function in society without trust, but trust is much more complicated than what it would seem at first sight. To move the needle and make progress on important issues we need to be able to relationally trust each other. For those of you interested in the latest science behind trust, I recommend taking a look at the Trust Project at Northwestern University .

[1] Mayer, Roger C., et al. “An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust.” The Academy of Management Review, vol. 20, no. 3, 1995, pp. 709–734.

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