Learn to trust

How can we remain positive and grounded in a time of crisis?

Trust is more important than ever in our current altered state; trusting the government to have our best interests at heart; trusting a fellow pedestrian to stay two metres away; trusting our co-workers to do their jobs remotely.  

Dr Brennan Jacoby who runs Philosophy at Work, an organisation that coaches businesses on philosophical issues, gives us a masterclass on what it means to trust. 

What is trust? 

Trust is an affective attitude of optimism in the context of special vulnerability.  

Can you elaborate? 

The vulnerability I’m talking about is that of potential betrayal. And yet we’re optimistic about being vulnerable to betrayal. So the question is: what gives us that optimism? And that’s where perceived trustworthiness comes in. It’s an affective – emotional – response.  

It certainly feels like optimism is useful right now 

The only optimism that does any real work for us is optimism that’s grounded in reality. Where trust is concerned, the reality that grounds optimism is trustworthiness.  

Does crisis heighten our need for trust? 

The trouble is – especially where we find ourselves with the Covid-19 pandemic – is that the social rules are very much still being written. We haven’t had time to figure out what we should and shouldn’t expect from people. The guidance around exercise, for example, is vague. If I see my neighbour leave their house for a jog and then come back three hours later, should I be judging them? Maybe they’re a marathon runner and so, before the lockdown, I could predict that they’d go for long runs. But now, I’m not sure which normative expectations I should have.  

How do we navigate a time like this? 

The best thing we can do is take steps to ensure that we are cultivating governments, organisations, teams and communities that are characterised by trustworthiness because that’s going to stand us in good stead. We need to be asking the right kinds of questions to help us make as many well-informed decisions as possible.  

Can we ever trust too much? 

Yes. Lots of companies I work with tell me they want to build more trust, but too much trust can enable abuses of power. Trust can be misplaced, and trust can run contrary to many of our business goals. If we’re working with colleagues and trying to be innovative and build good teams, we don’t want people to just trust everything we say. We want people – in a positive way – to push back and challenge us. What we want is appropriate and well-placed trust.  

Well-placed trust? 

We don’t want blind trust. We need constructive criticism. We need to feel safe enough ask questions. 

What happens when trust is broken? 

It’s painful because our sense of right and wrong is disturbed. You’re not only being betrayed by another person or organisation, but also by your own sensibilities. You begin to distrust yourself. It only takes one violation to destroy trust, whereas it takes a lot more to build it back up again.  

How do you regain trust? 

In a business context, when consumers have been betrayed, we often hear a CEO come out and apologise. ‘We’re really sorry that’s happened and we’re taking steps to make sure it never happens again,’ they may say. The emphasis is usually placed on the latter part of the apology, but what they’re doing here is shoring up predictive expectations. ‘You can predict that we will never cheat that emissions test again,’ for example. But what’s actually been damaged isn’t the expectation about what’s going to happen, it’s the expectation of what ought to have happened. We’re not disappointed because they’ve broken our crystal balls, but because they’ve stomped on our sensibility about right and wrong. 

Does that mean we need to learn how to apologise properly? 

My suggestion is that we need to apologise by saying, ‘We’re really sorry for what happened, we got it wrong.’ That’s the most important part to communicate.  

But can’t admitting a mistake diminish respect? 

Leaders often feel like they should have the answers and get it right. Apologising may feel personally devastating but also has the potential to damage their place in the ecosystem of the team. But there are ways to do it that’s appropriate. Being a competent leader means you’re competent when it comes to relationships as well. It’s OK to admit you don’t know.  

We’re only human… 

…and dealing with more complexity than ever before. 

So life is going to get even more precarious? 

There comes a tipping point where we might say that in a world full of uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, what is the value of trust? What is good trust? How can we get a read on what it means to be trustworthy in a world that’s changing faster than we can experience it? 

I hope you have an answer for that! 

Perhaps in the future, trustworthiness will have more to do with intention and the way you value a relationship. For example, I trust my wife because I’m responding to what I know to be her trustworthiness, and because I love her. The presence of love means I want to give her trust beyond what has been earned. 

Isn’t that potentially dangerous? No disrespect to your wife…  

You could say it’s a dangerous game, but perhaps I believe in the value of connection more than I care about being hurt. I'm going to consider this trust that I’m giving as well-placed because I believe in our relationship or society or business or city so much that if you betray me, I still think I was right.  

There’s hope for us after all? 

It’s this generosity of spirit that makes us uniquely human.  

Helene Dancer is a journalist, writer and film-maker who's worked with CNN, the Guardian, Vice and the BBC