Trust is eroding in all our institutions around the world. Most people are aware of the many surveys documenting this, but few have really explored why this trust is eroding, much less what we need to do to restore trust. We can easily get caught up in the headlines of the moment that offer graphic evidence of lack of trust, but we need to move beyond the headlines and probe deeper into what is going on across all institutions and all societies.
I’m going to suggest that we need to recognize that the foundations of trust are shifting and that we need to focus on building a new pyramid of trust. That pyramid of trust can help us to come together in ways that will enable all of us to flourish.
I’ve been writing about trust for quite a while. Almost 10 years ago, I came back to the topic in my blog “Resolving the Trust Paradox” and more recently I wrote a blog post on “Re-Building Trust in Our Institutions.” I won’t re-visit all of that here.
Setting some context
Let me start here with several observations from my earlier work that provide context for the trust framework that I’m going to share here.
Institutional disconnect. First, in the Big Shift that has been transforming our global economy for decades, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that there’s a growing disconnect between the way our institutions are run and the way our world is evolving. That’s a key driver of the erosion of trust – we intuitively see that growing disconnect and recognize that our institutions are less and less fit for the world they operate in.
Feeling fear. Second, as we see that growing disconnect, we understandably feel more fear. The institutions that we thought we could rely on are falling short in terms of addressing our needs. That feeds the fear, especially in a world of mounting performance pressure. And the more fear we feel, the less willing we become to trust others, which makes us even more fearful, setting into motion of vicious cycle of growing fear and loss of trust.
From skill to will. Third, the foundations of trust are shifting. In earlier days, trust was established by looking at the past. Trust was about demonstrated skill. Do the people have the right credentials and have they been able to reliably deliver as promised? In a more stable world, that was enough to build and maintain trust. The past was a reasonable indicator of future results.
No more. In a more rapidly changing and uncertain world, performance in the past is no longer a reliable indicator of performance in the future. Skills are becoming obsolete at an accelerating rate and, with new and unexpected situations emerging on a regular basis, new and very different outcomes may be required in the future.
In a rapidly changing and uncertain world, the basis of trust shifts from skill to will. Rather than looking to the past, we’re increasingly looking ahead to determine whether we can trust people and institutions. Do they have the will required to confront unexpected situations and find ways to deliver impact that matters to us, regardless of the unforeseen obstacles and barriers standing in their way? They may not have the necessary skills, expertise and resources today to address these obstacles and barriers, but we can be assured that they will do whatever is required to deliver the impact that matters to us.
That’s a high bar for trust. To meet that bar, we’ll need to focus on building a pyramid of trust. Let me explain.
To build deep trust with others, we’re going to have cultivate multiple layers of trust, with each layer building on the layer(s) underneath it.
The layers of the pyramid
Humility. At the base of the trust pyramid is humility. It’s the acknowledgement by the person or institution that they will never have all the skills and resources required to address an expanding array of unanticipated challenges and obstacles. This humility means that the person or institution will more quickly recognize when they are encountering something beyond their current capacity and be more willing to ask for help from others in addressing challenges and obstacles. If we encounter people who present themselves as having the capacity to address any and all challenges, we know one of two things: either they’re clueless about the range of challenges they will face or they’re lying. In either case, we would do well not to trust them.
Values and integrity. The next level of the pyramid focuses on intentions and values. Looking ahead, does the person or institution have a core set of values that will provide appropriate guard-rails for its actions, ensuring that it will act with integrity and a commitment to avoiding harm to others, regardless of the unexpected situations that emerge? This isn’t about speeches and mission statements; it’s about actions. Are their actions consistent with their values?
Commitment to impact. That leads to the next level of the pyramid – is the person or institution committed to delivering impact that matters to me? That commitment has multiple dimensions. Since my needs and aspirations are unique to me – is there a commitment to understanding what my individual needs and aspirations really are? Equally important, since we live in a rapidly changing world, is there a commitment to anticipating how my individual needs and aspirations are likely to evolve? Finally, does this all translate into a commitment to deliver impact that matters to me? Is there a commitment to action and results, and not just understanding who I am and what I need and want? Integrity matters, but ultimately it is impact that matters. (In this context, see an article I recently wrote for Harvard Business Review on the untapped opportunity to deliver more value back to customers based on the data that businesses receive from their customers,)
Excitement about impact. Commitment is important, but it’s not sufficient. We all know people who were committed to achieving something, but then failed to deliver. They ran into unforeseen obstacles and became frustrated and overwhelmed, and finally gave up. To really trust someone or some group in terms of their ability to deliver impact that matters to us, it’s important to reach the next level of the trust pyramid – we need to see genuine excitement about addressing unexpected challenges in delivering the impact that matters to us. That excitement will help to ensure that, whatever the obstacles, the person or institution will find a way to overcome them and not give up.
This level of the pyramid takes us beyond mindset and into heartset. The best intentions and the most genuine commitment are helpful, but ultimately it’s emotions that will determine outcomes in a world where we confront unexpected challenges and obstacles. If we give into fear, we are far more likely to fall short of delivering the impact that matters to others. On the other hand, if we’re genuinely excited by unexpected challenges and obstacles, we’ll end up doing whatever is necessary to deliver the impact that matters. We should never overlook the emotions that are driving the actions of others.
Those who have followed me in the past will realize that I’m now talking about a very specific form of passion – the passion of the explorer. We can trust those who have this passion because they have a questing disposition – they’re constantly seeking out new challenges and opportunities and driven to deliver more and more impact that matters in the domain they have chosen.
The other dimension of the trust pyramid
So far, I’ve been exploring the layers of the pyramid. But let me be clear. This isn’t a trust triangle, it’s a trust pyramid. Triangles are two-dimensional, but pyramids add a critical third dimension. What’s on that dimension? People.
Here’s the thing. Trust is about people – and the more people the better. Sure, we can have trust between two individuals. Think about the relationship you might have with your significant other.
But, as deep as the trust might become between two individuals, it’s likely to grow even deeper when the trust extends across more individuals. Think about it.
No matter how well-intentioned, committed and excited an individual might be, that person is likely to achieve much greater impact when she/he is collaborating in deep, trust-based relationships with a broader group of people who share those same intentions, commitment and excitement. Looking ahead, I’m much more likely to trust a group of individuals who have deep, trust-based relationships with each other than I would trust any one individual.
But the key is that these individuals need to have built deep, trust-based relationships with each other. They’re not just coming together because their employer told them to or because they have a contractual relationship with each other. As I’ve written elsewhere, there are limits to the size that these impact groups can attain – typically, these deep, trust-based relationships begin to become less deep if the group expands beyond about 15 people.
These small impact groups can increase their potential for impact by coming together into broader networks (a specific form of network that I call “creation spaces”) so that they can more readily access the skills, expertise and resources of more people. The existence of these broader networks can also help to strengthen the trust that I might have in any particular impact group.
Implications for institutions
So, how does this connect back to our trust in institutions, rather than individuals or small impact groups? Increasingly, trust in a rapidly changing world hinges on trust at the level of individuals. The challenge for institutions is to find ways to connect people in deep, trust-based relationships, both within their institutions and with a broader set of stakeholders, including customers. If the individuals trust each other, they will begin to trust the institutions that helped to bring them together and build deep, trust-based relationships with each other.
This is in sharp contrast to a general trend by our institutions, driven by scalable efficiency, to automate transactions and eliminate people from the equation wherever possible. While it’s certainly OK to automate specific transactions, the opportunity is to find ways to build long-term relationships that will connect people and help to build deeper trust. Part of the erosion of trust in institutions is that we are having less and less personal contact with the institutions that matter to us.
An inverted pyramid?
I like the pyramid image, but I’m concerned that it visually gives more space to the lower levels of the pyramid, while reducing the space for the higher levels of the pyramid. In one sense, this works – the lower levels are foundational and, without them, there’s no opportunity to cultivate the higher levels of the pyramid.
On the other hand, as I reflect on the pyramid of trust, I’ve become convinced that the higher levels of the pyramid are ultimately much more powerful in building deep trust that can motivate people to build enduring relationships. I’ll resist the temptation to invert the pyramid since that might give the impression of instability.
Just recognize that, at least for me, the higher levels of the pyramid are ultimately where the winners and the losers will be determined in terms of who is able to re-build trust.
Rebuilding trust in our institutions is an imperative. To succeed in this challenge, we need to address trust holistically. We need to recognize that the foundations of trust are shifting and that many layers of trust will need to be cultivated. We also need to address the opportunity to strengthen trust by connecting people into impact groups, so that they can become even more excited about the opportunity to deliver impact that matters to others. It’s ultimately all about people, finding ways to move beyond short-term transactions and instead build deeper and enduring relationships that can help all to achieve more of their potential.