Wednesday, October 12, 2005

How trust works

originally posted by John

‘Nobody can think a thought for me’ a clever bloke once observed, ‘just as nobody can wear my hat for me.’

Theoretically he’s right – clever people often are – but, practically, he’s about as wrong as he can get.

Every day other people think thoughts for us. Everyday we think thoughts for other people. If it wasn’t so - if we all suddenly had to start thinking for ourselves - our daily life would become very hard indeed. If we all started thinking for ourselves all the time, life would grind to a halt. Mere survival would become everything. Nothing would ever get done. All would be anarchy.

The magic ingredient that prevents anarchy and allows things to happen – the bit missing from the clever bloke’s observation above – is trust.

Trust makes the world go round. Everything we ever do we do is because of trust. From our most trivial acts to our most portentous, and from the absolutely personal to the earth-shatteringly global, trust is the very lubricant of life itself. If life were a computer, trust would be its irreducible machine code.

Whoever we are, whatever we’re doing, trust always allows us four possible reasons for everything we do:

  • we do things because we’re told they’re in our best interest (power)
  • we do things because they’re the done thing in the group we belong to and belonging to the group is in our best interest (network)
  • we do things out of a sense of duty or responsibility where not doing them might have consequences that are not in our best interests (commodity)
  • we do things purely out of personal choice (authentic)

As we’ll see later, these four reasons are just different aspects of trust. In trivial aspects of life their differences often blur. But when things get serious, when the stakes are high, the role of trust changes and the differences become vital. And whether we use them singly or jointly or whether we use bits and combinations from all of them to justify what we do, we use them all the time in everything we do.

So they’re pretty important. So important in fact that our entire lives take place in a space that is bounded by these four aspects of trust. We (Aidan and I in our book Trust and Mistrust) call this the trust space. Think of it as a square field and everything you do takes place in that field. At any time your precise whereabouts depend on two things: the thing you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

If you’re doing something because you’ve been told to do it then someone is thinking your thoughts for you and you might not be in the most favourable spot in the field. If you’re doing something because it’s what your group do, or you’re doing something out of a sense of duty, the same applies. The rule of the trust space is that there’s always a more favourable place, a better place to be than where you currently find yourself: a place where things work better, a place where more opportunities are revealed, a place where life itself is better. Not just for you but those you come into contact with. Moving towards that place simply requires tapping in to the way trust works.

The trust space is not a theoretical or hypothetical place. It is the true picture of how our lives work. It is the perfect world-view.

This is what it looks like in a little more detail when we’re in the middle of the field looking north.

The closer we move towards the horizon ahead of us the more we do things out of (perceived) personal choice. We call this dimension authentic trust. At the extreme left-hand end lies conformity (publicness) a place where we let all our personal choices be made for us – we let someone think our thoughts for us in other words. In doing so we give up our own thoughts. Moving towards the right-hand end our own thoughts begin to take precedence. Our choices, and the way we handle transactions with others, reflect more of our true selves as a result.

Behind us is the horizon reflecting our relationship with power. We call this hierarchical (power) trust. Moving towards this horizon we find ourselves doing things because we’re told doing so is in our best interest. The more we succumb to power the more constrained our freedom of choice becomes. Choices we make and the way we deal with other people reflect this.

To our left is the horizon reflecting how we feel about our sense of duty. The higher this sense then the fewer choices we find ourselves with. We call this commodity trust. In a perfect world we would be encouraged to look for answers to questions or solutions to problems anywhere and everywhere. In a world dominated by commodity trust decision-making is highly formalized. Only answers and solutions from this formalized set are permissible. This again is reflected in the way we do things and, by extension, into our relationships.

To our right, the final horizon reflects our needs to belong to a group. We call this need network trust. The greater our need for the security the group gives us then the more we derive our values from the group. The less our need for security the more our needs reflect our own thoughts. And we treat people accordingly.

In any given instance in our lives this is what the world looks like: our thoughts are being thought for us by those in power, by the groups we belong to, by our sense of duty and by our perceptions of what is expected of us and only rarely by our authentic selves. The way we conduct relationships and the way we undertake transactions with others reflect these thoughts. The rule – mentioned above – is that, when it comes to dealing with people in day-to-day relationships, there’s a better place forward and to the right of where we currently find ourselves in the trust space.

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