Disturbed trust is not necessarily violated trust

16 Feb

As trust is generally acknowledged to be crucial for success in public collaborations, networks, coproduction and the likes, it is important to better understand processes of trust building, maintenance and repair. Bottom line: trust building and maintenance is hard work.

This (long) weekend I finished writing a chapter on processes of interorganizational trust building and maintenance based on research Hans van Ees and I did on collaborations between Dutch water boards and local councils. In the public administration/management literature on networks, collaborations and coproduction, trust is recognized as very important. What is striking though is that no research exists to date that properly unpacks that concept to gain a better understanding of the micro-level processes of trust building and maintenance. I studied these processes within organizations in detail in my dissertation Trust and Trouble (2004) and it was good to see the “basic mechanisms” also at work in interorganizational relations.

Interorganizational trust “consists” of two components: interpersonal trust and trust in the organization’s institutions. The interpersonal trust is between the individuals from each organization who do the actual interacting, the “boundary spanners” (cf Williams, 2002; €) doing the “face work” (cf Giddens, 1990). The organization’s institutions consist, for example, of the procedures and culture that will influence members’ actions. Kroeger (2012; €) has begun the important task of understanding how these two components interact.

We selected two cases where the collaboration got off to a good start but ran into trouble later on. We focused on the interactions between operational-level boundary spanners. We wanted to understand the dynamics of the interactions. It turned out that processes of trust building and dealing with trouble were crucial. In one case the trouble was resolved and the collaboration continued with deepened understanding and trust. In the other case the trouble was not resolved and distrust had taken hold.

When one of the parties involved experiences trouble as a result of the other party’s actions (or lack thereof), they will want to makes sense of it and make attributions as to what happened. They will also wonder what this trouble event implies for their trust in the other party. Trust is based on having positive expectations about the other’s uncertain future actions, but when trouble occurs, that flow of positive expectations is disrupted. There are roughly two kinds of responses, which over time may both occur; they are not mutually exclusive. The first is to immediately jump to a conclusion. This may be either “this is nothing, I can continue to trust” or “see, I cannot trust him, I need to distrust from now on.” The other response is to suspend judgment and first to try ascertain why the other acted as they did, by inquiring into the situation with an attitude of “say yes to the person, but no to the behaviour.” If the other responds constructively to this inquiry, then chances are that a good assessment of the other’s trustworthiness is likely. In fact, when both parties are good at such an inquiry and reflection, trust is often deepened since a trouble event provides an opportunity to look each other in the eye and get to know one another better.

What did we learn about processes of trust building and maintenance between two (public) organizations? Processes of trust building and maintenance are supported when both parties

  • have positive intentions to making the relationship work and taking each other’s interests into account.
  • have the interpersonal, communicative and reflexive competencies needed to deal with the challenges of trust building and maintenance (see below).
  • have both a task-orientation as well as a relationship-orientation. Attention to relational aspects is considered unimportant in both traditional public administration given Weber’s legalistic approach, and New Public Management, given its rational choice assumptions of market-based exchange relations. Osborne (2010) rightly emphasizes the importance of relational governance.
  • are aware of the challenges of trust building, such as managing expectations, avoiding misperceptions, checking if interpretations and attributions are correct.
  • are aware of the variation of potential causes of trouble experiences. These can range from a mishap, a misunderstanding or an unintended mistake, all of which are no grounds for distrust; to a disagreement that cannot be resolved or an intended violation, which may be grounds for distrust.
  • are willing and able to (eventually) suspend judgement after a trouble experience and constructively inquire into the background of the trouble event; and to respond constructively to such an inquiry. Seeing a trouble event as an opportunity to get to know the other party better and see if trust may be deepened.

When organizations collaborate, there are organizational institutions that may further facilitate and strengthen processes of trust building and maintenance:

  • usually interorganizational relations occur at different levels, for example, operational, managerial and executive. When trouble occurs at, for example, the operational level that cannot be resolved, escalating it to a higher level may help to resolve it. Sometimes this escalation can be done in mutual agreement because the issue at stake is “beyond” the remit of that level.
  • maintaining regular contacts at all levels outside of conflict situations will help build trust and understanding that will be useful when trouble occurs.

In sum, trust building and maintenance is hard work.