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On Trusting Trust, or Leading by Loyalty

  • 14th Oct, 2005 at 12:28 AM

In a previous entry, I asserted that trust is an effective tool when interacting with people. Not only is it important in the work-a-day world, but it's the force that binds friends and family. I'd be willing to wager that civilisation would fall were it not for trust. For my discussion to go any further, I sort of have to demonstrate this to you.

Human beings are social animals. What this means to ethologists is that we form complex social structures. Human beings group together for common causes, fight amongst each other, take care of each other, and are generally communicative. For any social structure not to devolve into chaos, there must be some belief in the ability to predict what someone else will do. To interact with these people, you need to be able to rely on their integrity and veracity. That is trust.

If you look at children, you'll see that every one of us was born to trust by default. We're really quite helpless when we're young: we've only got about a dozen reflexes that aren't particularly good at protecting us from danger. So the baby has no choice but to rely on its parents. As we get older, we learn to distrust people because some of them will take advantage of our naïvity. But I highly suspect that even the most cynical person still longs to trust fellow humans, although that is a generally unwise course of action.

However, there still needs to be trust between people; since it's the only foundation for how individuals form groups, which network to form societies. If you have the trust of other people, they will likely help you in life. Of course, you are expected to reciprocate. Since life isn't a zero-sum game, if you manage this correctly then all of you will gain more than you will lose.

Say you want to accomplish something difficult, like moving an upright piano up a staircase. If you find someone to help you move it, you're going to need some element of trust. Both of you have to communicate and trust that the other person isn't lying to you when you decide to pick up the piano. The person on the bottom has to trust that the person on top won't push the piano down the stairs, when they are halfway up. Why, you even have to trust that "moving a piano" isn't just a convenient excuse to have you trapped in a stairwell with your arms occupied. If we were all paranoid, nobody would be able to get pianos into upstairs rooms. Granted, this might make the neighbours downstairs happy, but it's no way to build a stable society.

So people are willing to put trust in other people. For some people, you might be willing to place unconditional trust. For others, it might be a calculated risk to trust them with something.

An example of a social group where trust is a fairly stable feature is the family. Whether it's a small, nuclear family or a large, extended community; humans have had the concept of kinship for a very long time. For example, in societies with strong familial systems, there's a strong element of trust: children trust their parents to take care of them, to protect them, and to guide them; parents trust that when they grow old, their children will look after them. In countries that are more independent, this still flows in one direction. And the family is a fairly stable structure, even considering how often they break down. Mostly, this stability can be attributed to the irrational love that bonds parents and children together. Only incredible stress can overcome the default trust relationship that exists.

However, once you start scaling, then trust gets exponentially more difficult. When you have a group of people like the Debian Project, we see a completely different magnitude of undertaking. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Debian Project maintains Debian GNU/Linux, which is an operating system that consists entirely of Free Software. There are 1400 registered volunteers who all contribute to its care and development. Currently, they oversee the packaging of over fifteen-hundred distinct pieces of software, and solve hundred bugs per day. Inside Debian, volunteers have to co-ordinate with each other to get things done. Some people are more co-operative than others, some people are less willing to entertain suggestions than others. They have to trust each other enough to work together, and trust each other not to do something malicious to the group.

This is not an easy problem. And one that Debian has yet to solve effectively.

Corporations solve this by imposing hierarchies. They use position power, or rank, to demand that things get done in a certain way. People are placed above other people, in a place called management. The management has some rather primitive tools to encourage or discourage behaviour from their subordinates. Simple rewards, like a promotion; and simple punishments, like a demotion. Not that this actually removes trust from the equation of the corporate social environment. People still have to trust that they're not lying to each other. They still have to trust that they won't sabotage each other's work. Of course, in a large enough group of people, in a competitive business environment, there will be people who will lie, backstab, and steal for their own personal gain. Some corporations, in an attempt to reduce this effect, enact policies against anti-social behaviour that include punishments like firing. I've noticed that these policies seem to encourage everyone to be more paranoid, leading to less real work getting done as people scurry around trying to prevent themselves from taking the blame or getting fired. I once worked at a place like this and was one of the few productive people in a maelstrom of "cover-my-ass".

This is also not an easy problem. Interestingly enough, management science literature doesn't talk very much about trust, except tangentally in case-studies. It appears, however, that reducing your reliance on trust doesn't get you anywhere quickly. Your group just breaks down that much faster, instead of slower. So the only choice appears to be nurturing trust.

This is an incredibly difficult problem. Which I shall have to discuss in another entry.


Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
angorian
14th Oct, 2005 15:50 (UTC)
I disagree with your premise that predictability and trust are equitable. I can easily think of situations or people where they are predictable but I sure don't trust them. Perhaps you mean trust in a looser fashion ?
sfllaw
14th Oct, 2005 16:34 (UTC)
Oof. You're right. That slipped through the draught.
fanlain
14th Oct, 2005 17:47 (UTC)
How do you feel about infants who develop attachment disorders because they have been neglected by their parents? Should those infants who group with limited or no ability to bond/trust with others be discarded for not fitting into a societal base expectation or should it be society's role to pick up where the parents are failing? If that's the case, our social programs clearly need a huge overhaul. Perhaps if this is understood to be a fundamental, problems should be addressed more seriously at this level so that everyone has a basic sense of trust and bonding toward others well before they're adults and working or being involved in more complex hierarchies.

The corporation management structure is one that is imposed upon a set of people. People also do not always follow structure or respect the hierarchy. They are also not always fired for this, even when it has a very negative impact upon the organization. I've experienced this directly, to my utter frustration. Some corporations seem to promote people who have a clear history of lying, cheating, and manipulation. Seen that too. If you show no fear of being fired, people will try to slam you into their fear cycles to be just like them. I think trust and management too often do not go hand in hand.

I think part of the problem is that people do not have consistent views on basic terms like what is trust? I might trust my friends, but I would not trust them to the point of backing them if I felt they were out of line. A friend mighth see me as suddenly not trusting them or being their friend as a result, when I think I'm being a better friend to them those those who do feel their out of line but are not calling them on it.
sfllaw
14th Oct, 2005 21:12 (UTC)
How do you feel about infants who develop attachment disorders because they have been neglected by their parents? Should those infants who group with limited or no ability to bond/trust with others be discarded for not fitting into a societal base expectation or should it be society's role to pick up where the parents are failing? If that's the case, our social programs clearly need a huge overhaul. Perhaps if this is understood to be a fundamental, problems should be addressed more seriously at this
level so that everyone has a basic sense of trust and bonding toward others well before they're adults and working or being involved in more complex hierarchies.


My view on this matter is that it is society's responsibility to take care of the next generation. However, I'm not sure that social programmes can have more effect than they currently do.

What I advocate is convincing people to pay more attention to their surroundings. Granted, this is a difficult thing to do in times where gated communities are getting more and more popular. But isolating yourself from the rest of the world does not prevent it from going to hell in a handbasket.

So I don't think it's a government agency's job to monitor children. It's really everyone's job to make a fuss and scowl at parents who don't take care of their kids. Social pressure is a tool that isn't used very much in North America, which is a shame. And if that doesn't work, then bring in the law to settle the situation in a way that's equitable to society at large, and to the child in specific.


The corporation management structure is one that is imposed upon a set of people. People also do not always follow structure or respect the hierarchy. They are also not always fired for this, even when it has a very negative impact upon the organization. I've experienced this directly, to my utter frustration. Some corporations seem to promote people who have a clear history of lying, cheating, and manipulation. Seen that too. If you show no fear of being fired, people will try to slam you into their fear cycles to be just like them. I think trust and management too often do not go hand in hand.

Sadly, this is true. However, I don't think it has to be this way. Certainly, I'll go out of my way to avoid jobs where people sabotage each other.

I have a theory that explicitly imposed management structures are not optimal. I'm not saying that management structures shouldn't be documented, that's almost certainly true. But I think I advocate a far more flexible system where people should be positioned where they are most effective.


I think part of the problem is that people do not have consistent views on basic terms like what is trust? I might trust my friends, but I would not trust them to the point of backing them if I felt they were out of line. A friend mighth see me as suddenly not trusting them or being their friend as a result, when I think I'm being a better friend to them those those who do feel their out of line but are not calling them on it.

Well, I suppose the way I'm using trust is not blind trust. But rather, the act of relying upon someone to keep promises, or tell you the truth, or to be good to you in general. But being trustworthy does not imply that you have to do wrong, just because you're a trusted party. That's more a test of faith than it is a test of trust.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )