Successful collective action requires clarity and trust. Organizations that are clear about the impact they are trying to have themselves are much better at collaborating with others.  An ability to demonstrate competence, reliability and honesty are foundational to earning trust from others.

Trust Defined

Trust is a big concept.  Even defining it is hard.  In the simplest terms, and to quote the philosopher Onora O’Neil[1]: “Trust is based on trustworthiness”.  

People differ in their inclination to trust others. This tendency is developed by our learned experience: quite apart from what’s happening in the here and now, people who have been disappointed and let down in the past are less able to trust others.

In her TED talk, Onora O’Neil argues that trust is created when its object demonstrates trustworthiness.  This can happen only on an individual basis, one interaction or subject at a time.  Our trust is intelligently placed with people who demonstrate trustworthiness.

Trustworthiness is demonstrated by competence, honesty and reliability.  People could demonstrate two of these and we would find them trustworthy in certain areas (although Onora makes the point that honesty probably has to be one of the two).

For instance, I trust a plumber to fix a leak in my house, but I wouldn’t trust him to fix my car.  This isn’t a value judgment on the plumber’s character, but rather recognition of his competence in the particular thing I need help with at the moment.  The next time I have a plumbing problem, I will call that plumber based on my expectation that he will fix the leak, show up when he promises, and charge me a reasonable amount.  He will get repeat business and referrals from me based on his competence, reliability and honesty.   I trust him.

It’s harder to get institutions to trust one another when it comes to solving big problems.  For one thing, defining the problem is much harder than detecting a flood in the basement or hearing a clanging noise under the hood of my car.  But, we will tend to trust those who have lived up to the trust we have invested in them in the past, even if we’re not sure they have competence for this particular problem.  If the honesty and reliability dimensions are already there, then we can reserve judgment on the competence side (after all we know they are competent in some things, we don’t know about this particular thing.)

Trust is based on demonstrated competence, reliability and honesty, experienced many times and as appropriate to the new situation.  Strategic clarity in our own organizations, well communicated, can help us build reliability capital with others and make us better (that is, more trusted) collaborators.

We make decisions about people’s trustworthiness in every interaction we have with them, but people naturally build their reliability capital the more often our trust in them proves correct. Building trust requires us to open ourselves to these kinds of interactions and give each other opportunities to demonstrate trustworthiness.

Trust Among Organizations

One of the challenges in making collective impact projects work is that we are trying to build trust among institutions rather than among individuals.

The received wisdom about collectives  (and here I’m paraphrasing FSG and Tamarack’s collective action work) is that we should be very clear about the problem we’re tackling, we should design and implement a shared measurement system to create focus and measure success, and that we must agree on some mutually reinforcing activities to drive the change.  All of these elements are critical and fundamental components of successful collective action efforts.

But without trust, institutions can get bogged down in the transaction costs and coordination costs of too much verification. 

Our propensity to trust stems from our lived experience. Many of the people we support in the human services sector have lived experience that fosters distrust and can debilitate their capacity for healthy and productive relationships.  Even our agencies and institutions can have lived experience of having to compete with others for funding, or satisfy others’ ‘tick boxes’ in joint intake efforts, or for endless reconciliation of not quite coordinated requirements and rules.

Our institutional foundation may have made us risk averse and mistrustful.  The reasons for this are understandable and clear- everyone reports outcomes to different funders, has a reputation to uphold, or has a legal department with a different list of prohibitions and conditions.  I notice in “Toward an Integrated Network” (published by the St. Leonard’s Society of Canada) an outline for developing protocols and agreements with others suggests that “effective practices include adaptability and flexibility concerning the procedures and protocols that are implemented; they should encourage thinking outside the box”.

Tough to do when we don’t completely trust our partners. To quote Tamarack again, we fear the loss of our autonomy, a negative impact on our reputation, conflicts of interest or unproductive drains on our resources when we try to work together.  All of these risks of collaboration are ameliorated as trust builds.  Without trust, we can be inclined to throw up our hands and conclude the other is unreliable, or incompetent, or dishonest.

So, What to Do  

To build trust across sectors, or across communities, or between individuals, and to build our capacity to take a chance on what the other guy is going to do, we must become more conscious and intentional about our own reliability capital.

Fundamentally, trust is something that is given to someone who is trustworthy.  One way to build a reputation for trustworthiness is to make ourselves vulnerable to others:

  • Give away information about your internal processes, your funding strategy, and your outlook on the sector.
  • Share your data and ask for input on how to use it or interpret it better.
  • Find opportunities to demonstrate openness and vulnerability, which will send the message that you trust others and are therefore trustworthy yourself.
  • Think about the agencies you’re dealing with as collections of people like yourself.

The extent to which we trust others is a measure of how trustworthy we are ourselves.  Without good information to the contrary, we make assumptions about ‘the others’ on the basis of our own fears.  If we assume that others will betray our trust or let us down, what does that say about our own trustworthiness?  At the very least, trust depends on our accepting that the values and motives of the person (or organization) we are working with are the same as ours. Open and broad communication will back up this belief.

Trustworthiness builds trust, and trust is social capital.  If we commit to demonstrating our own trustworthiness, with few preconditions, then many of the transaction costs, coordination costs, reputation costs and autonomy risks associated with some collaborations will disappear.  The more we trust one another the more we can accomplish together.  By demonstrating our own trustworthiness we build reliability capital and inspire others to do the same.

[1] Onora O’Neil: TED Talks “What we don’t understand about trust”, September 2013