Building Trust

by Robert C. Solomon & Fernando Flores

Cover image

Publisher: Oxford
Copyright: 2001
Printing: 2003
ISBN: 0-19-516111-4
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 165

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This short book is rather unusual compared to what I normally read. Despite a title that sounds like a self-help book, it's a philosophical treatise written in a more academic tone (although not so much so that I had to have a dictionary handy). The goal of the authors is to challenge our definitions and perception of trust, argue that what we normally call trust is the least interesting and least important sort of trust, and propose a new definition of trust that lacks the fragility and emphasizes different goals.

When people talk about trust, the authors contend that they're often talking about "simple trust" or "blind trust." Simple trust is unconsidered, unconscious trust, trust that is never questioned because the possibility of betrayal is inconceivable. This is the sort of trust that some children have, or that one has that one's friend won't suddenly draw a knife and stab you. There isn't a conscious thought process behind the trust because it's never reached the analytical mind. This is the sort of trust that, once betrayed, cannot recover. In the authors' model, it is this trust that is the source of our sense of fragility about trust, the sense that once someone has violated our trust, they can no longer be trusted.

They define blind trust as trust that willfully ignores any reason not to trust. Blind trust is self-deceptive trust, the trust someone extends contrary to any evidence and clings to more tightly as evidence mounts against it. This is the sort of trust that too often people ask for when they say "trust me." A violation of simple trust can lead to distrust, or it can lead to blind trust where the person betrayed, in an effort to hang on to trust that they believe vital but also believe to be fragile, copes with the contradictory information by intentionally discarding it.

The argument in Building Trust is that both of these models of trust are at worst unhealthy and at best facile. The authors define "authentic trust" as a more complicated model, a type of trust that involves conscious evaluation and builds into the trust the possiblity of betrayal. Authentic trust is when one takes into account the capabilities and history of the person being trusted, recognizes a risk, and makes the conscious choice to trust anyway. Unlike simple trust, it survives and even thrives on consideration. Unlike blind trust, it's not based on ignoring past experience, but rather based on weighing past experience against the value inherent in trusting and the possibility of change.

I think the definitions are useful. When one is reading them, they do seem obvious, but I think they surface a lot of unconscious assumptions. I was intellectually aware that trust is not something that has to stop at the first betrayal of the trust, but it's very easy, particularly in the grip of emotion, to fall back on treating all trust like simple trust. This is reflected in people's discussion patterns as well: notice how hard it is to talk about whether or not you trust someone with that person. Even to raise the topic implies insult or lack of trust. Our communication patterns shy away from directly confronting the issue of trust, but that makes it harder to build authentic trust and to keep the relationship on an open and honest level.

The authors are careful to distinguish authentic trust from reliance. Reliance is our attitude towards gravity, towards the strength of materials, or towards the automobile that we need to get to work. Reliance is often based on conscious evaluation, similar to authentic trust, but is based on either necessity (if one has only one car and no means to acquire another, there is no choice but to rely on it) or evaluation of the characteristics of the object relied on. One may also rely on another person, which is where trustworthiness comes in. If someone is scrupulously honest in everything they do, one may be able to rely on their honesty. Reliability can also be derived from professional certification, bonding, or other similar structures that would lead any rational actor to do what we expect them to do. Many of our relationships with strangers are based on reliance, which is easily confused with trust.

I found the distinction between this and authentic trust to be compelling and a distinction that I'd not considered in depth before. Solomon and Flores argue that authentic trust differs from reliance in that it permits trust for no previously established reason. A father may trust his child to do something he has never done before; that trust cannot be reliance, since the child has no existing track record. Furthermore, the father may, and in many cases should, trust the child to do something they may well fail to do.

The example that came to mind reading this is a performance plan in a work environment. When an employee is failing to meet the requirements of a job, a good manager does not simply take away responsibilities. That results in an employee who's not doing work and will never become a better worker. Instead, one writes an explicit performance plan, laying out what the employee needs to do, and then trusts the employee to meet those requirements. This trust is not reliance; it is quite possible that the employee will fail to meet the requirements and lose their job. However, if the manager is any good at their job, neither will this be an act of distrust, an expectation that the employee will fail. The purpose of the performance plan is to give the employee a clear opportunity to succeed contrary to past experience. And sometimes it works, against all the evidence that one could use for reliance.

That this works points to what the authors put at the center of the message of their book: the transformative nature of authentic trust. Their thesis is that authentic trust isn't a simple cost/benefit decision; rather, people who are trusted behave differently than people who aren't. And trust is recoverable. It can be violated and extended again, not blindly but understanding the tradeoffs and choosing to take a risk. In their view, trust always involves risk, always involves the possibility of betrayal, and this is something to be embraced and understood rather than shied away from. Getting past the conception of trust as something that, once violated, is gone forever opens the doors to trust which is about a relationship, about thinking for the long term, and which can cope with setbacks and involve meaningful discussion of someone's strengths and weaknesses.

This is a somewhat tedious book to read and at times feels repetative. But the framework that Solomon and Flores propose makes a lot of sense to me, and on that framework they build some perceptive insights. I liked their emphasis on emotion as a matter of choice, on one's ability to control how one feels about a situation, and therefore choose to trust or not trust. There's also a great discusison of corporate mood, including a perceptive critique of the phrase "morale" and its overly-simplistic picture of the collective mood of a workplace.

Since this isn't a self-help book, it doesn't offer specific recipes for building trust. It's not a practical book in that sense. Instead, it's a book about terminology and the mindset that comes with the terminology. Solomon and Flores did a great job of bringing to the fore my unspoken assumptions about trust and helping me look at it from a different angle. I don't think this book will be to everyone's taste, but I found it worthwhile reading.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-04-15

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