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?