What we mean when we talk about trust

Dr Brennan Jacoby is a philosopher who helps individuals and organisations understand what trust means to them. He spoke to Communication Director about the importance of betrayal, transparency and the pursuit of trustworthiness.

As a philosopher that also consults individuals and organisations on trust, what are some of the fixed ideas your clients have about trust that you then have to unpack?

The thing that I often have to work around is not so much a misconception about trust but a lack of critical reflection about trust. I find that we recognise the value of trust and take time out to build trust, but often there's not too much emphasis placed on trying to figure out what trust actually is. What is trust, what is trustworthiness, what actually happens when trust is broken? Just as if we were to try to build a house we would need to have some sort of blueprint, if we set out to build trust we need to first have some kind of understanding about what that thing is we are trying to build. And so I often start off working with groups by saying, what is trust exactly? And then try and bridge the gap between that theoretical work and the practical every day experience.

Several surveys rank companies by the levels of trust people have in them, treating trust as a definable, measurable thing in itself. But isn’t the issue more subtle: aren’t there different degrees and types of trust?

I would agree that such tools are limited to the extent that they tend to look at qualitative and quantitative types of research, which is good and comprehensive, but trust is fundamentally a human phenomenon and, just like with other things about human relationships, it can't always be quantified. Sometimes studies that try to measure trust ask, "How much do you trust so and so to tell the truth? How much do you trust doctors, lawyers and so on to tell the truth?" But when we think about trust in our day to day lives, we're not just basing trust on how much we expect someone else to tell the truth. It might be a difficult to articulate feeling of being at ease around someone, or a lack thereof. It might be an explicit choice to trust, despite feeling unsure. But sometimes it might not be so cognitively chosen and it might be something that we do without thinking. So yes, trust comes in a lot of different forms. But one theme that runs throughout all the work I do is a very felt kind of vulnerability that is essential to trust.

Do companies find the concept of vulnerability threatening?

Definitely and I don't think it's unique to the companies that I work with. Perhaps it's just part of being human and being self-protective. But in the sort of work world we have, certain circumstances can conspire against our pursuit of vulnerability and our willingness to be authentic. This is particularly prevalent if we're in an environment that's very dog-eat-dog or competitive, or if we're in a leadership role where we feel that if we were to let our guard down and show vulnerability those following us would feel insecure as well. However, in the last 10 years or so there’s been a real growth in appreciation for the value of vulnerability, and in the West we seem to be coming out of a time of the Victorian stiff upper lip. I think what makes trust trust is in fact a vulnerability to being betrayed. That’s what sets trust apart from things like cooperation or reliance.

" I think what makes trust trust is in fact a vulnerability to being betrayed."

I can count on a taxi driver to take me to work, even if I don't think he has good will towards me. And if he doesn't do a great job of getting me there I might feel let down or frustrated but I probably won’t feel betrayed because I'm not really trusting the taxi driver, I'm just relying on him or her. But in a friendship or a close working relationship sometimes trust is more essential, and that opens the door to not just being let down but feeling betrayed when things don’t go very well.

Is betrayal the antithesis of trust?

I don’t think it’s the antithesis. I would say instead that distrust would be, or a lack of trust which can come about either through a neutrality of not feeling very strong trust for someone, or trust not being very relevant to a situation. I would say that is the antithesis. I would call betrayal rather an enemy of trust. Though it’s important to note that betrayal is not always negative where trust is concerned. Normally betrayal isn’t good, but sometimes trust needs to be broken. If it’s an unhealthy trust, if it’s someone trusting too much, or if trust has been placed for negative ends, sometimes the betrayal can actually be a sign of trustworthiness. Think of a whistle-blower in a corrupt organisation where everyone trusts each other to keep the company secrets and not betray those to the watchdogs.

""Betrayal is the enemy of trust, but sometimes it can be a friend as well."

In that situation most of us would probably find something corrupt about that trust. And if one employee were to betray those secrets with the intent of trying to reform the organisation, then we might think there’s something to that person that makes them trustworthy. So it’s quite a complex relationship between betrayal and trust. In general I would say betrayal is the enemy of trust, but sometimes it can be a friend as well.

Is there such a thing as too much trust?

Because as we’ve seen trust can be abused, trust is not always best and so we should aim not for trust but for well-placed trust, which I would argue is trust placed in the trustworthy, or placed for the sake of a good cause. A third type of well-placed trust is trust placed in someone that's not really trustworthy but who is someone we want to give trust to as a gift. Imagine a parent who has a 10-year old child. The parent wants to teach the child to be responsible so they buy them a pet. They don’t buy the pet because they think the child is already responsible and competent to care for the pet. They give the child the pet to teach them responsibility. That’s an instance of giving trust not because they think the recipient is trustworthy but to cultivate it. There is a type of trust we give because we care about others and about our relationships with them and that flies in the face of what you could call rational or reasonable trust, but I still would say that’s a well-placed trust.

As society, are we too prone to be sceptical?

Some scepticism is a good thing but what I am noticing in society is a scepticism that is running amok. When governments or organisations let stakeholders down, it makes sense for those stakeholders to be sceptical, to have a level of distrust. However, what concerns me is when we move from that reasonable scepticism to an inability to be open to the possibility of those that have broken our trust being reformed and potentially cultivating trustworthiness again. If an organisation really wants to repair trust, if they’ve really changed and they’ve tried to fix the systems that broke the trust in the first place, an objective observer might look at them and say, yes they actually really are trustworthy, people should give them a second chance. But those of us that were offended and had our trust damaged by that organisation might find it very hard to let go of the resentment that can conspire with our reasonable scepticism and put up a wall with no gate through which the possibility of trust could come.

Which of the great philosophers should our readers turn to for answers to their questions about trust?

Annette Baier is a brilliant philosopher who reawakened concern with trust, at least in the philosophical world. She sparked a whole literature around trust and ethics in the world of feminist philosophy and more broadly. I recommend her paper Trust and Anti-Trust. Less directly, someone that I don’t find writing explicitly about trust but who is incredibly relevant is Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish existentialist. He writes a lot about anxiety, and his work is incredibly relevant for people living today that may have a sense of insecurity about job stability or increases in terrorism and diseases. Kierkegaard thought that the Enlightenment had pulled the rug out from underneath the traditional religious assumptions in Europe, and he grappled with how we make sense of life when we have this feeling of having the ground pulled out from underneath us, this sense of anxiety. He didn’t think that anxiety was something to be feared, it was rather something that we should look to as a teacher that would guide us in how we should live. 

Brennan Jacoby

Dr. Brennan Jacoby is a philosopher and the founder of Philosophy at Work (www.philosophyatwork.co.uk), a consultancy delivering facilitation, training, writing and talks for the sake of helping others think better so that they can do better. Originally from Detroit, US, Brennan holds degrees in philosophy from Macquarie University, Sydney, Western Michigan University and Spring Arbor University. His doctoral research analysed trust and betrayal, and explained what it means for individuals and institutions to be trustworthy.