Author Topic: The Dynamics of Trust  (Read 6755 times)

Certain Hope

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The Dynamics of Trust
« on: July 13, 2008, 01:05:51 PM »
Just ran across this and found it useful, so thought I'd share here.
The discussion of risk and risk tolerance especially startled me... and I realized - I've become so accustomed to being all out, flayed open on the O.R. table of life, that I'd come to feel like there was nothing left to lose. Well... now I see that there's plenty to lose, still... so I'm glad to be reminded of this risk factor.


One of the core issues in conflict resolution between parties is the issue of trust. We often hear the phrase ‘I don’t trust you,’ or ‘I don’t trust them,’ when we manage conflict. Trust, or lack of it, can be significant barrier to parties’ finding a resolution to an issue; indeed, it can prevent the parties from even wanting to talk. On the other side of the coin, trust is a unique resource, in that trust is expanded rather than depleted the more it is used. The more we can access trust with the parties, the more useful and effective it becomes in reaching resolution. Trust is a key resource in the conflict management process.

Complexities of trust

Trust itself is one of the least understood ‘commodities’ in human relationships. We often think of trust as a single thing, a single measure, a single component, when this is patently not the case. For example, many of us get in a car and drive to work on roads and highways where the only thing separating us from oncoming cars is a white line painted on the road (and in many cases, not even a solid white line!). We are, in essence, trusting thousands of strangers to stay on their side of the line. If we didn’t fundamentally trust that they would, it’s virtually certain that no one would drive a car. Does this mean that we “trust” every stranger we pass on the road? We clearly trust them to stay on their side of the road, but we probably wouldn’t trust them with the keys to our house. So we can trust someone in one situation, for one reason, and not necessarily trust them in all situations for all things. Trust, therefore, has a complex and varied dynamic in human relationships.

There are a variety of definitions of trust that approach the subject from different angles, from a psychological view to a personality view to a behavioural view. For our purposes, we will look at a functional definition of trust to help us understand the dynamics surrounding it.

A simple definition of trust is having positive expectations about another’s motives and intentions toward us where potential risk is involved.

The two key elements of this definition are these:

 Risk is a key element of trust, in the sense that we have to take risks (small or large) to explore, test, and eventually build trust. Without actually relying on someone, without taking a small risk with them, we can never really know if we can trust them. A significant question, however, is given a choice, why would anyone ever take such a risk?
The answer is simple: it’s the only way to get what we want. If we needed nothing from each other, ever, there would be no need for trust in the first place.
The reality, of course, is the opposite. The more interdependent we are, whether at work or in our personal lives, the more we rely on others, the more risk we must take. The level of trust we have in the situation or the people affects the size of the risk we will take and how frequently we will take those risks. Risk is integral to trust at all levels.

Motives and intentions:
The motives and intentions of other people are invisible to us, we can only infer or attribute motives based on their behaviour; or, more accurately, how we interpret their behaviour. When we assess another person’s trustworthiness, we are assessing whether they have “good intentions,” (that they care about the needs of others) or whether they have “bad intentions,” (they are indifferent to others’ needs, care only about themselves, or will actively harm other people for their own benefit). Our assignment of motives to other people is critical, because it also determines how we assign fault and blame. When conflict arises, how we decide who caused it, and therefore who is at fault and who is to blame, will determine what happens to our level of trust with the other party.

The Dynamics of Trust model, from a diagnostic point of view, focuses on these two areas:

The assessment of each party’s level of risk tolerance relative to what they want or need
The assessment of causes and assignments of blame.

Risks and risk tolerance

Each person’s level of risk tolerance is a complex balance of personality (our personal tendency to like risk, or not) and our past experience with (and perceptions of) similar situations.
Not surprisingly, it has little to do with factual assessments of risk, because human beings are notoriously bad at assessing actual risk.
 For example, people going camping in the woods will tend to think about, perhaps even obsess about the risk of a bear attack, a risk that is statistically far lower than the chances of being struck by lighting. At the same time, they will get in their car and drive 300 miles to reach the campground without thinking about or considering the fact that driving is by far one of the most dangerous activities we ever do.

Risk tolerance, however, is not based solely on personality or perception; it is also based on the relationship between the fear of what might be lost (the risk) compared to the benefit of what might be gained (the reward). It is the party’s assessment of this risk/ reward balance that determines behaviour.

In simple terms, if the risk or loss is seen as greater than the reward or gain, the party is not likely to take the risk unless they have sufficiently positive expectations about the other party’s motives and intentions; in other words, unless there is sufficient trust.

Excerpt from ‘The Conflict Resolution Toolbox’, by Gary T Furlong. Published by Wiley India (P) Ltd.