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Whom Do We Trust?

Whom Do We Trust?

Despite (or maybe because of?) recent management attempts to restructure the workplace, trust doesn't seem to be a major feature on the job. Development Dimensions International, Inc., a consulting firm in the Pittsburgh area, conducted a four-nation study of 1,108 workers in 57 companies, and reported that folks feel 'neutral to very slightly negative' when polled about the level of trust in their companies. According to survey results, 56% of non-management respondents said that lack of trust was a problem at work.

When managerial response was included, 46.5% of the total survey group identified lack of trust as a problem, and 37% specifically said that lack of trust wasn't a problem. The remaining 16.5% must not have trusted their own instincts enough to be sure. Immediate superiors got a higher trust rating than top management did. On a seven-point scale, the category of 'Leader, Manager or Supervisor' came away with a rating of 5.06, while senior management got a dismal 3.51.

So what does it take to boost trust levels within a company? Oddly enough, it is, or could be, a fairly simple asset to build. Survey respondents listed a few behaviour characteristics:

That list makes the reader wonder exactly how dysfunctional some of those 57 polled companies are. But it gets worse. Take a look at the respondents' list of trust-destroying behaviours:

So what does it all mean? When you look over the trust-destroyers, that list sounds like the actions of people who are scared - scared of what might happen to them if they make mistakes in a company where mistakes are punished, rather than regarded as the occasional result of encouraging employees to take some initiative.

I was stranded in a small college town by a freak off-season snow storm a few years ago. It took out power lines and shut down most businesses in town. I went into a sporting-goods store where two clerks told me that yes, they had gloves in stock, but no, they couldn't sell them to me - all sales had to pass through an inventory system on the cash register, which was of course dead.

So I went to the store on the next block, where the only employee who had been able to drive in to open up the shop was jotting down on a legal pad the stock numbers of the merchandise he sold. He was figuring out the sales tax from a hand-written chart he'd worked out, and making change from a collection of bills and coins in a cigar box on the counter next to his elbow. He'd taken in several hundred dollars by noon.

If I'd owned both stores, I know which clerk I'd trust to run the place in my absence.

But here's the punch line: When I told that story to a guy I know, he immediately pointed out that without the safeguards of a control system to record all transactions electronically, the store's owners would never be sure that the clerk with cigar box and legal pad hadn't been diverting a few sales into his own pocket. It's a two-way street. If we're ever going to make any progress on the job or anyplace else, we have to risk trusting each other. Who do you trust? Who trusts you? But don't spend too much time asking. Somebody has to make the first move.

Your paper mentions experimental economics. It turns out that people and animals both extend trust when the transaction is transparent. They understand it, but also they get to see the results of this transaction (if it happens repeatedly) or the transaction history of the other person (if this is a one-off.) Reputation equals trust - that is what the word means, after all - but without reputation, there is no trust. People and companies gain and lose reputations; or are unknown and strangers without much trust given to them.

But societies also gain reputations. By that, I mean not what you have said - that some are more honest than others, although that's a part of it. What I mean is that the atmosphere, the ethos, is one of trust. If I come to a shop keeper who I have never dealt with before in a high trust society, I will go further out on a limb with him than I will with one in a low trust place. Well, of course - but what makes for a low-friction, high trust environment?

In part, reputation - in a small town, reputation sticks and everyone knows anyone. You don't get credit if you have ever failed to repay a debt, and so on. In big cities, you don't know your neighbour, and don't trust them so much. But people in Pakistan and Nigeria - two low trust places - tell me that even villages are low-trust,and for the villagers themselves, not just how they deal with outsiders. That is because the societies are not co-operative in the same way as others have been - people with power see the weak as prey. Europe was once much the same - Rome classed you by who you could do things to and who could do things to you; and your network of influence. That may have been the greatest gift of the Christian era, to change the view to one of mutual help, at least some support to the weak and the idea of an irreducible bit of dignity that comes from being human. That is a set of choices with no real 'theoretical' underpinning except that it works for the society, making for collaboration and what you called non-zero sum games.

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