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Trust in Institutions

I’ve commented before on the US public’s loss of trust in major institutions. Declining trust is not just a US phenomenon, but it is nonetheless troubling to those of us working within institutions.

Reflecting on these trends led me to speculate about the mechanisms for trust building. Of course, there are many social science theories that touch on the development of trust. Sociologists and psychologists note the prevalence of reciprocation norms. These norms prompt a person who has received an act of kindness/assistance/gifts from another to perform a commensurate act at some later point toward that person. The reciprocation both builds and sustains trust over time between actors within a society. Others argue that as the wealth of societies increase, the perceived benefits of institutions decline because of the belief that they are not as fundamentally necessary to the everyday welfare of individuals.

What features of an institution might sustain trust?

First, the “trust” bestowed by a person seems to require an expected benefit to that person. Some of the theories of customer satisfaction have noted that merely meeting a customer’s expectations does not in itself generate satisfaction. For example, if I believe an airline will not serve me well (that is my expectation) and it does not, the experience does not make me satisfied. Instead, satisfaction, and perhaps trust, comes from believing that the organization will makes me happy, will serve my needs, and then experience it effectively doing so.

Second, trust seems easier for institutions whose clients agree on goals among themselves. At a very basic level, organizations whose mission is focused on a specific public, whose expectations and needs can be identified, seem at an advantage to trust-building. With an alignment between goals of individuals and goals of institutions, the trust likely seems higher. Homogeneity of goals among an institution’s stakeholders facilitates meeting those goals. As institutions mature, and stakeholders increase in numbers, managing homogeneity of stakeholder viewpoints is challenging. When an institution’s stakeholders do not agree on what the institution should do, trust is threatened.

Third, institutions with singular goals seem to have an advantage. If the goals of an institution are unambiguous (both to the public and those within the organization) the correspondence between stakeholders and institution is likely to be better. One wonders whether some of our institutions have seen a gradually widening of the scope of their missions over time (witness the demands that schools perform some activities that were formerly the role of families). Institutions with wide, vaguely-stated goals seem open to unmet expectations and, thereby, a loss of trust.

Fourth, trust requires time. Vivid in my memory is a focus group I witnessed long ago, when we were exploring the role of trust in responding to social science surveys among the public. One woman stated that the reason she trusted a certain institution was that it had been around for a long time, and inferred that longevity was unlikely without good performance. The argument suggests that one requisite of trust is time for the development of a history of interactions between the public and the institution.

Fifth, trust in an institution requires transparency surrounding its activities. The recent shocks to trust in institutions often involved secrecy by the institution. Increasingly, the public appears to use transparency as a prerequisite to trust. Those institutions that appear to lack transparency produce lack of trust among some merely by the absence of transparency.

Sixth, trust is enhanced when institutions adapt to changes in their stakeholders’ norms. Institutions, as they grow, tend to specify appropriate behaviors and inappropriate actions by codifying them in written rules. Much of society however runs on unwritten rules, which some call “norms.” Norms are often unwritten, but they define what we find acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in different situations. Norms often change faster than rules. Those institutions where rules become out of alignment with current norms seem to be subject to loss of trust. In a rapidly changing normative environment, those institutions that nimbly adapt their rules to emerging norms are likely to maintain trust.

Of course, many of these reflections raise the issue of how important public trust should be for an institution. If the core mission of the institution becomes out of alignment with the society it serves, what are the leaders of the institution to do? How can institutions avoid mission creep that leads indirectly to loss of trust? Can there be too much transparency? How can institutions influence the normative structure of a society in efforts to build trust?

13 thoughts on “Trust in Institutions

  1. Awesome points. Trust and transparency is really a vital part of any combination that’s expected to last and stay firm. Although it takes a time and other factors to build, it could get shattered with just little underrated mishaps.

    Your final observations actually nailed it. Thanks.

  2. The standards for building institutional trust enumerated here are unassailable. But regrettably I believe the performance of your office has failed to measure up to these standards with respect to the Graduate Liberal Studies Program. In March 2016, the GLS core faculty advised you that the program was in crisis, with the MALS enrollments in freefall since the University redirected the School of Continuing Studies to focus on professional programs. The core faculty maintained that the GLS Program needed greater autonomy to manage and market itself in order to succeed in its Jesuitical mission of values-based, liberal arts education of the public intellectual. You directed the program review to address this critical issue. During that review, there was a large outpouring of stakeholder support for the core faculty position, including the GLS faculty, students, and alumni, and the internal and external review committees both gave it their full support. More than a year has passed following the program review, but little has changed and your office has provided virtually no transparency or engagement with these important GLS stakeholders. As an active participant throughout the review process, I can confidently state that your office has engendered a profound lack of trust among these stakeholders, many of whom consider the review process largely a charade. This is a tragedy for the University, which depends on alumni support for its success, and in this case, the invaluable support of GLS alumni – over 2000 MALS and over 50 DLS graduates – who are indispensable as promoters for the GLS program.

    • Chuck, as a fellow Graduate Liberal Studies alum who has worked beside you in the effort to rescue our program, I understand where you are coming from. But I, for one, do not feel the Provost’s review was a charade.

      The process resulted in new structures designed to increase GLS faculty participation in marketing, and to have GLS faculty make the curriculum more robust and attractive. Those initiatives are staffed and operating, though perhaps need to proceed with more dispatch.

      The real problem is that GLS is caught up in the well-documented shift in student preferences from liberal arts programs to more job/career oriented ones. We are in the same boat as many other humanities and social sciences programs across the nation that have been downsized, consolidated or eliminated as a result.

      Going forward, it seems to me that GLS should embrace that trend, rather than continue to resist it. The liberal arts, too, have much knowledge to impart that is valuable to job and career. GLS’s best chance at revival is to reorganize around that as its primary mission–while perhaps simultaneously offering its traditional “public intellectual” one for those who still want it. I would urge all involved to consider such an approach.

      As Jack Ringwood says above, “institutions must adapt to changes in their stakeholders’ norms in order to maintain those stakeholders’ trust.” We would do well to take that idea to heart.

      • Dear blog moderator:

        The “awaiting moderation” version of the comment I have just submitted (9/1 at 12:51 pm) seems to have left off my name.

        I do not know why that happened, but could you please correct it by adding “Bill Kuncik SCS ’17 says” at the beginning of my said entry, in the blog’s usual fashion.

        Please do not print this entry. Just make that addition to my prior one.

        Thank you
        Bill Kuncik SCS ’17

  3. Institutions build trust when they take the actions necessitated by their core values, even when–especially when–to do so is inconvenient, embarrassing, painful and/or difficult. They lose trust when they succumb to expediency and fail in that regard.

    To our great credit, we did right by our Jesuit values in the actions we took with respect to our unfortunate heritage of slavery.

    Today’s statement by the Editorial Board of the Hoya, as well as Ms. Wong’s blog entry above, have now joined the issue for us with respect the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal and the role of Cardinals McCarrick and Wuerl in perpetuating and covering it up.

    Can we muster the courage to do the right thing again?

  4. Great post.
    Echoes, in many respects, one of the finest GU professors, Carroll Quigley. He explained that one of the earmarks of a civilization in decline is when its “instruments” of expansion (population, geography, productivity and knowledge) become “institutions” vested in their own interests and methods. Your final observation – that “institutions [must] adapt to changes in their stakeholders’ norms” in order to maintain those stakeholders’ trust – is consistent with Professor Quigley’s perspective. Thanks for this timely reminder.

  5. Let’s not confuse trust with importance or relevance. Institutions are trusted when they prove to be trustworthy (worthy of being trusted).

    If an institution isn’t important or relevant then it might not matter whether the institution is trustworthy. However, if it does matter then it becomes a matter of whether the institution does what it says that it does. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” “Actions speak louder than words!”

  6. I think Georgetown’s trustworthiness would be improved if the university rescinds its honorary doctorates to Cardinal McCarrick and Cardinal Wuerl. It is all well and good to talk about trust and transparency, but it seems Georgetown is hiding something from its reluctance to make any statement about the sex abuse scandals at this time. Even CUA has rescinded its honorary degree to McCarrick? What is GU waiting for?

  7. Trust also has to do with demonstrable necessity. We might want to apply the principle of via negativa : If the institution in question ceased to exist, what precisely would be missing ??

  8. Excellent blog. In summary trust developes over time with great openness, , listening, flexibilty, communication, and transparency. In today’s environment that’s harder but more important to do than ever. Hope we can be models for students who will be tomorrow’s leaders as men and women for others.

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