Nina Laine: Trust is an invisible commodity

Nina Laine

PhD Nina Laine writes about trust and social capital that trust can produce by making everyday life and interrelations between people run smoother. Laine points out the mutual benefits gained with trust in working environments and outside them. Nina Laine works as a workplace coach and consultant in her own business. Her research interest has been trust in the workplace in Finland and she has contributed a number of writings on the subject. Laine’s doctoral dissertation dealt with trust between superiors and subordinates in the employment setting

FI “Luottamus on aineetonta lainaa” lopussa.

Trust is an invisible commodity

Though trust is not a material substance, it can move mountains. Trust affects human behaviour. When a group of people believe in what they are doing and in each other, their efforts can change the world — at least their part of it. Trust is always future-oriented and hence a progressive force that brings one forward.

Trust is like an intangible asset that we lend to those we deem creditworthy. When people trust each other, they have faith in each other’s words and promises. A person who is trusted can easily get along with others. Trusted people have the effect of getting other people to believe in them and to do things on their behalf. Where there is trust, the ’daily grind’ begins to flow without friction, both at home and in the workplace. Trust is important for that very reason: it gets things to flow more freely, whether the issue is one’s daily duties or personal relationships.

Trust leverages cooperation

Trust is a prerequisite for almost all collaboration. Time and time again we must put trust in people we know only slightly or not at all. For example, a home remodeller takes a risk when ordering work from a new renovation firm. What if the project runs over schedule, the quality is poor or the handyman vanishes? In business life as well, trust is a currency in high demand, especially in subcontracting. A business must take risks repeatedly if it would prosper and thrive.

For many, globalisation has made the need to cooperate with foreign parties throughout the world a daily reality, and some colleagues may be known only through email or teleconferencing. Still, new relationships of trust must be built, for to keep within the same old circle of contacts is to stifle activity. Growth demands trust.

Risk and trust are inseparably woven together. One could say that trust presupposes risk: for in a completely controlled situation, no trust is needed. Sometimes risks must be taken and we must simply choose to trust despite uncertainties about where things will go. Conscious risk-taking is also a way to enlarge the circle of trust: in deciding to trust, we give the other party the opportunity to prove their trustworthiness.

Good intentions and abilities create trust

So what is it that makes us trust another human being? Consciously or not, we make judgements about people’s sincerity and intent. Trust begins when we feel the other person has good intentions. We can then believe their speech is truthful and that they are benevolent towards us. This is a moral aspect to trust: we trust in people of sincerity and good will, and shun those who deceive.

Interpersonal trust concerns not only good intentions, however, but ability as well. Professional skill, knowledge and knowhow form the groundwork for professional collaboration. We prefer to buy products and services from professionals of trusted ability. No one sitting in the dentist’s chair wants to believe the drilling is being done by a quack. Professional identity is also an ingredient in trust. Lawyers are trusted by other lawyers, and electricians may entrust work to colleagues more easily than to the uninitiated. A shared background and specialised knowledge join people together, whatever the occupation.

Trust between people may focus on particular qualities, and few of us are 100% dependable in everything. Despite being sincere and well-meaning, we may be unreliable in certain areas. John pays all of his debts on time, but he may be something of a gossip and blabber about things that were better unsaid. Jane, on the other hand, can keep other people’s business in confidence, but may forget to make her contributions to the office coffee fund.

 Fairness and competence increase organisational trust

What about organisations — can they be trusted? Just as with interpersonal trust, trust in organisations includes a moral aspect as well as questions of competency. An organisation may be reliable in some things and not in others. A business with superior products and a good labour environment, for example, may have its reputation tarnished by its poor process for handling dismissals.

Organisational trust includes competence as well as fairness. The skill side includes the functionality of the organisational structures, the efficiency of the division of labour and the state of the organisation’s technology and competitiveness. When employees believe in the capabilities of their workplace, they can also be confident it will succeed in future and get through the current challenges. Fairness includes a fair workplace culture, open communication and good personnel management. In a fair organisation, employees trust that the organisation will treat them equitably for the most part, communicate with them openly and justify decisions that are taken. Organisational fairness does not mean that only decisions pleasing to the employees are made, but rather that hard decisions are also made in a spirit of fairness.

An acceptable, but delicate topic

While trust is an acceptable topic for discussion, it is good to make sure at the outset that everyone is talking about the same thing. For example, to trust in another is based primarily on a feeling and a knowledge built up through experience.  Trustworthiness depends on our own behaviour and whether others can depend on it. By increasing the reliability of our conduct, we may increase the trust others place in us. Propensity to trust is, for its part, a personality trait derived largely from one’s formative experiences.

Talking about trust requires sensitivity and diplomacy. To build trust one should find out what factors allowed trust to arise in the past or what is needed to make future trust possible. To build trust, it is often necessary to stress not so much the feeling of trust as the concept of trustworthiness. For example, if we seek the trust of another, we should ask what it is that helps that person to trust in general.

Showing mistrust towards another may trigger a defensive reaction. When lack of trust needs to be discussed, one should speak clearly and unambiguously and describe the specific actions that undermined the trust. It is unfair to simply assert that trust has been lost in a board member, for example, without telling the member what caused it. When a trust deficit has arisen, it is appropriate to ask what kind of feedback had been given earlier. People are generally willing to modify their behaviour if they receive corrective feedback at any early stage.

 Trust shows up in the bottom line

Trust costs nothing, yet it can save considerable sums. Trust between members of a work community is the best means to make the work flow smoothly. In an atmosphere of trust, one’s professional skills and efforts are appreciated, thereby raising one’s motivation. When one does his share, others can rely on him or her to do the job properly. This obviates the need to spend time double-checking and duplicating work. Trust saves time, trouble and money.

Another saving accreditable to trust is a decline in sick leave. The social capital of the workplace, of which trust is a major share, affects employee well-being as well as the workplace atmosphere. Employees who feel trust in the organisation — in their superiors and workmates, and who also feel that they themselves are trusted — are much less prone to take sick time. Such employees want to be seen as trustworthy and try to avoid leaving their workmates and customers in the lurch. When one is attracted to one’s work, one does it regardless of the minor problems.

 Trust means taking the plunge

Propensity to trust is, as said above, a personality trait. However, it can also be a matter of volition: we can choose to trust. To trust may be the wisest course if there is no reason not to. Trust increases our chances of attaining the things we want. Moreover, trusting can do us good. People who generally trust other people tend to feel themselves happier than those who fortify themselves with a cold cynicism. The following may illustrate where taking risks can lead.

A woman on summer holiday was considering buying a carpet from a vendor in the market square. The man didn’t have a carpet in the right colour on hand, but promised he could get one delivered directly to the woman’s home. However, cash payment had to be made immediately. The woman pondered whether to dare pay cash in advance to an unknown merchant in a strange city. She began taking out her billfold in spite of her doubts, however, and the man said with a wink ”Never have I been untrue to a lady — in money matters, that is”.

Successful risk-taking strengthens one’s faith in other people. Had the woman hung on to her initial prejudices that the demand for money up front was just a swindle, the merchant would have been denied the opportunity to show that he was a man of his word. The woman also never would have known whether she had made the right choice. As it turned out, she experienced the satisfaction of knowing that she had: the carpet arrived the following week as promised and in exactly the right shade.

 English translation Bill Hellberg