What's trust got to do with it? - RSA

What's trust got to do with it?


  • Picture of Nathan Kinch
    Nathan Kinch
    Sociotechnology ethicist and social entrepreneur
  • Democracy and governance

Internal initiatives to improve organisational trust and reputation are often unsuccessful. Instead, leaders need to step back and question their organisation’s purpose, values and principles, and redesign decision-making to explicitly act in the public interest, argues Nathan Kinch.

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What is trust? Many readers will be familiar with Warren Buffet’s quote: “Trust is like the air we breathe. When it's present, nobody really notices. But when it's absent, everybody notices.” But what do statements like this really tell us? I would suggest the answer is, pretty much nothing.

So is there a better way of describing trust? Well, there is no broadly agreed definition. But a useful definition I work with is: ‘Trust is the willingness to be relationally vulnerable based on positive expectations.’

This tells us that trust is a phenomenon that generally involves two or more parties. It tells us that there might well be some type of power imbalance, and that the relationship is entered into, or framed, by positive expectation. You might like to think of this as the belief one party has in the other party’s trustworthiness.

But this still doesn’t tell us what trust is. I would suggest that trust is usefully thought of as a biopsychosocial phenomenon. Biopsychosocial models, first conceptualised by George Engel in 1977, look at the interconnection between biology, psychology, and socio-environmental factors. What this model attempts to do is give us a fuller, richer and potentially more nuanced picture of the human being and the way we develop in relation to our environment. 

Like I discussed in my last article on AI ethics, “all models are wrong, some are useful” (George Box). The biopsychosocial model is not intended to be reality itself, but rather a useful depiction of reality that helps inform how we make sense of things in our attempt to make them better.

But why is this important? Trust is something we feel and directly experience. We also attempt to describe and better understand trust through scientific disciplines. Even though this is the case, we don’t really know what it is. Instead, we approximate. As a result, we should maintain humility when we describe this phenomenon and its implications.

Trust is the willingness to be relationally vulnerable based on positive expectations.

Why do organisations need trust?

Much has been written about the importance of trust for organisations, both public and private. Much of this seems to suggest that trust is the problem. It places the burden ‘out there’ in the world. 

But that really isn’t the problem. The problem is largely ‘in here’. Or rather, how the ‘in here’ (our organisation) results from what is ‘out there’ (the broader ‘system dynamics’), how that then relates to the ‘in here’ (incentive structures and other organisational features and processes) and how that cycle continues to the ‘out there’ (customer beliefs about trustworthiness and how this impacts relational dynamics).

To clarify what I mean, let me share a framework that helps us understand the relationship between these ideas. It can help make sense of where organisational decision-makers and influencers might better direct their efforts.

You can watch a video I published on LinkedIn about this.

In this framework there are five layers:

  1. Ethics (within the organisation): The deliberative process of reflecting on our first-order (moral) beliefs in an attempt to align our decisions, actions and their likely consequences towards that which is ‘good’ and ‘right’ (often described in relation to our purpose, values and principles).
  2. Trustworthiness (within the organisation): The qualities a given party exhibits, specifically benevolence, integrity and competence
  3. Trust (outside of the organisation): The willingness one party (a customer let’s say) has to be relationally vulnerable (to an organisation/business) based on positive expectations (the belief the customer has in the organisation’s trustworthiness).
  4. Reputation (outside of the organisation): The opinion that people in general have about the organisation and its effect on the world.
  5. Social licence to operate (outside of the organisation): The ongoing acceptance of a company or industry's standard business practices and operating procedures by its employees, stakeholders and the general public.

The goal posts have moved. Organisations can no longer bend it like Beckham. They will not be afforded a social licence to operate if they are seen to lack benevolence, integrity and competence.

Social licence to operate

What organisations really care about is their social licence to operate (SLO). And often, when they consider their SLO and how to improve or extend it, they think about how they might enhance trust and reputation so that there is widespread acceptance of their practices and operating procedures.

But, and this is the crucial error so often made, trust and reputation happen ‘out there’. The organisation cannot control this, it can only influence it to some extent. 

I cannot tell you how many initiatives I’ve seen of this kind – those focused on ‘enhancing trust and reputation’ – that are largely wasted. This can lead to an obsession with poorly thought-out metrics, perverse incentives and all manner of other issues, such as ethics washing and green washing.

Instead, the organisation should focus on what it can influence; the process through which it makes decisions about what is good and right, and the ways in which that informs organisational features that help animate benevolence, integrity and competence (the organisation’s trustworthiness).

Now, this is not to suggest that trust and reputation do not have an impact on the social licence. They do. The mistake is that organisations start from the variable outcome (attempting to directly influence trust and reputation), when they should be starting from the actions they can directly influence (how to do ethics and organisational design better so that the organisation itself becomes more verifiably trustworthy).

Where we get to with all of this framing out of the way, especially given a rapidly changing sociocultural, sociopolitical and socioeconomic environment, is that the goal posts have moved. Organisations can no longer bend it like Beckham. They will not be afforded an SLO if they are seen to lack benevolence, integrity and competence. 

Which brings us to the next question in this article.

How can trust help us design for life?

We now have very good reason to believe, thanks to the latest peer reviewed literature on the topic, that we have transgressed six of nine planetary boundaries. 

This is not new, however. We’ve known that there are effectively ‘hard’ limits to our extraction, production and consumption since the early 1970s. In response to this, we have seen different macro-economic proposals communicated. Namely: 

Green growth: From the OECD, “fostering economic growth and development, while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our wellbeing relies”.

  • Agrowth: There doesn’t seem to be a stable definition to rely on here, so let me suggest “attempting to decrease resource extraction, production and consumption in alignment with the Paris Agreement, with what is generally a growth agnostic mindset”.
  • Degrowth: From Jason Hickel, “a planned reduction of energy and resource use designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human wellbeing”.

There are nuances and complexities to each of these thematic proposals. There are also varied views within each camp. What I would highlight is the fact that we have good reason to believe that green growth is happening way too slowly. We aren’t seeing anything near the sufficient absolute decoupling that would be required to keep GDP growing, while also bringing the totality of human activities back within the safe(ish) operating zone of planetary boundaries. 

In short, we need to ‘net regenerate’, and fast, regardless of the specific pathway/s we take.

This is the backdrop, but it’s only part of the bigger picture. The planet is warming faster than ever before. More than 70% of ‘wildlife’ has been lost in the last 50 years. We’ve got an AI arms race. We have multiple wars being waged, some obvious and overt, others hidden and subtle. We still have far too many people living below the poverty line. We have what used to be a ‘middle-class’ in many countries now struggling, even with two incomes, to stay afloat. Inequality is rampant. This list goes on and on.

We face very real issues here and now. And the future risks sometimes seem overwhelming. But the flip side of this is that, even while acknowledging our deeply precarious trajectory, much of life now is ‘better’ than it’s ever been. So, what are we to do?

We need to design in ways that support people in relation to places and the rest of the planet. We need to find ways to deeply connect, thoughtfully collaborate and effectively coordinate so that we can bring life back within planetary boundaries. We need to do this while also raising the social foundations for those who need it most.

Are you net-positively contributing?

There doesn’t seem to be any one way to do this. For your everyday organisation, whether public or private, this first requires a hard and steady look in the mirror. The big question is: are you net-positively contributing, or are you remaining a part of the problem?

If the mirror helps illuminate something inspiring, don’t start with the SLO. Step back and question your purpose, values and principles. Start redesigning your organisation so that it explicitly exists in service of the public’s interest (benevolence). Design your organisation’s structure to consistently operate in alignment with your values and principles, regardless of where the spotlight may be directed (integrity). Take the time to build real relationships, set shared expectations and work hard to deliver in alignment with, or above and beyond, those expectations (competence).

This transformation will help make your organisation far more worthy of trust. This will very likely positively improve trust states and the overall sentiment directed towards the organisation. Through this you can go beyond SLO and the general idea of acceptance. You can actually start doing what is overwhelmingly preferred, perhaps even celebrated, by your team and the broader group of stakeholders (including the bees and trees) that you exist to serve.

If you’ve got any questions, I’d love to chat. Good luck and enjoy the journey.

Nathan (Nate) Kinch is a sociotechnology ethicist. He has spent the last decade operationalising practical approaches to ethics in organisations around the world. He is the Ethicist in Residence at Colabs, a co-founder of Tethix and an independent advisor to governments, corporations and startups.

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