Trust, A Word Which Here Means…

It is not everyday that one can quote Lemony Snicket and a Harvard Business School working paper in one piece of writing, and yet that is exactly what I am about to do in order to explore the issue of trust and ways to stay out of a soup pot.

“It is true, of course, that there is no way of knowing for sure whether or not you can trust someone, for the simple reason that circumstances change all of the time.  You might know someone for several years, for instance, and trust him completely as your friend, but circumstances could change and he could become very hungry, and before you knew it you could be boiling in a soup pot, because there is no way of knowing for sure.”

The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket (p. 73)

 At the heart of successful social change work is the relationship between us and them.  It is people from impoverished communities who need to drive the work since they will need to sustain whatever social change emerges.  They, in turn, need our support financially and otherwise to create the space for them to do this work.  How we form and sustain our collaboration will determine our effectiveness over the long term.

Trust is the ubiquitous term that many use to label that glue that holds these cross-cultural collaborations together.  Clearly both sides of the partnership must have confidence that the other is going to follow through on their commitments and give the other the benefit of the doubt in times of strain.

But as Lemony Snicket warns, there is no way of knowing for sure if someone can be trusted as circumstances change, which they do all of the time as small grassroots projects grow into mid-size organizations with expanded reach into broader communities, or as economies struggle and force difficult financial decisions.  How do you sustain trust over time?  In other words, how do we keep ourselves or do they keep themselves out of a pot of boiling soup?

Roy Y.J. Chua, Michael W. Morris, and Shira Mor give us some non-soup related food for thought in their working paper entitled, “Collaborating across Cultures: Cultural Metacognition & Affect-Based Trust in Creative Collaboration.”  They focus on the “collaborative dyad,” or two people working together across cultures to create innovations that draw on each partner’s unique skills, resources, and worldviews.  The concept well describes the collaborations of many small, community-driven social change projects where two communities in very different cultural and financial circumstances joins forces to enact some sort of social change.

“The creative potential in a collaborative dyad comes from the differences between the two people – surface demographic differences such as nationality or ethnic background correspond to deeper differences in people’s knowledge of the world, their capabilities, and connections.”  Chua, Morris, and Mor arrive at an important conclusion: that each partner’s self awareness of his or her own culture and cultural assumptions leads to the kind of trust that supports cross-cultural innovation.

Indeed, the kind of trust matters.  As they explain, “cognition-based trust” is confidence in another based on perceptions of their ability to deliver.  This is the kind of trust based on reading someone’s resume and seeing that they have the skills and past experience to do the job.  “Affect-based trust,” on the other hand, is confidence in another based on “concern for the other and comfort in opening up to them.”  These authors conclude after in-depth study that it is affect-based trust that allows for contextualized flexibility of thought, the kind of thinking that fosters innovation in dynamic, cross-cultural settings.

These findings have a direct bearing on our work as social change leaders:

  • As individuals, we must develop and sustain well-honed cross-cultural skills, making time for self-reflection that allows for change over time.  This might involve spending time in cultures outside of our region of focus or developing learning communities that keep our perceptions in check.
  • As communities, we must invest in face-to-face communication that fosters and sustains trust.  Tightening budgets result in calls for more efficient spending, and international travel is expensive and time-consuming.  Long term collaboration, however, depends on high quality relationships.  Each collaboration needs to find ways to foster these relationships within their budget realities.

Lemony Snicket has an endearing way of explaining complicated terms in his A Series of Unfortunate Events children’s books.  When using a term that most kids won’t know, he follows his use of the word with an explanatory phrase like, “A word which here means….”

If Mr. Snicket were writing about trust across cultures, I imagine he could write any series of explanations.  He could write, “She trusted him, by which I mean to say that:

(a) she assumed that he would be predictable in his actions.”
(b) she knew that he had all of the qualifications needed for his job.”
(c) she understood the limits of her own understanding and gave him the benefit of the doubt that he must know what would serve the best interests of his community.”

How would you explain the sensation of trust that you have with your partners?

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