Here is why the term “trust” is too vague

Many corporations preach trust as a critical success factor. The word trust appears in many organizational artifacts: the way clients are to be treated, mission statement, core values etc., ad nauseam. Yet when examined up close, the term trust seems to lack shared meaning.

An underlying dynamic which impacts perceptions of what constitutes trust are the basic assumptions about “how do get things done”.

  • In cultures where people assume that building a system that works enables people to get things done, trust is achieved by behaviours which strengthen the system, like `following procedures`, sticking to roles/responsibilities and accuracy.
  • In other cultures, where people assume that a web of relationships will enable things to get done, behaviours which strengthen the web of relationships will  enhance trust, like `trading favours`, insider dealings, and scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

Indeed, trust means too many different things to different people and is achieved by drastically divergent means.

  • In some cultures, people trust one another because they know that conflicts will never be aired. This strengthens relationships!
  • In some cultures, trust is augmented after an “argument” because then each side knows that the other truly cares. This also strengthens relationships.
  • Many Dutch will trust you if you are direct whilst many Thais will build trust if you avoid giving them direct messages which are unpleasant.
  • ·Germans may develop trust with people who follow the process. Chinese and Israelis will need to trust someone first before they follow a process.
  • Mr. Wu and Mr. Smith sign a 40 million dollar deal. Then Mr. Wu asks Mr. Smith to hire his son for a year so that the son can get a visa to the US. Smith does not trust Wu because he thinks that he corrupt. Wu does not trust Smith because “I just did him a favour, and he won’t even help me with my son”. Here is the conflict between systems and relationships at its peak!

I am publishing  a book of exercises geared to create enhanced global mindfulness of key organizational terms. In this upcoming book, one of issues I shall address is trust in global organizations.

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Trust in global companies

The way to achieve trust varies from culture to culture.

  • In some cultures, people trust one another because they know that no feedback will be given which leads to loss of face.
  • In some cultures, trust is augmented after an “argument” because then each side knows that the other truly cares.
  • In some cultures, “following the process” builds trust whist in other, process can only be followed once trust is established.

Because of this cultural divide around trust, I suggest less use of the word “trust”. There needs to be a list of behaviours around which people rally, not a word that means something very different to everyone on the block.

For example, we could start with:

  • The appropriate people are consulted before a decision is made.
  • We assume positive intent.
  • People assist one another above and beyond formal roles and responsibilities
  • Communication styles factor in both face needs as well as need for directness.

One may claim, trust means different things to different people, but we all need to show trust! I claim that the word creates undue complexity, as if “fast” and “eat” were the same word.

Continued use of the term “trust”, as is, serves the interests of the power elite in OD, which promulgates this ambiguous term as a platform for force feeding the western interpretation of trust.

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