Trust Dynamics: Competence, Distrust and Generalized Trust
Our guest for episode 80 is Sim Sitkin, a Professor at Duke University at Durham, N.C. He explores the dynamics between trust and distrust, highlighting their distinct natures and the challenges involved in navigating these complex emotional states. He uncovers the nuances of how trust can vary incrementally across different domains, and contrasts this with the pervasive and often unyielding nature of distrust.
Trust and distrust exist on a continuum, but they operate differently. Trust can increase or decrease smoothly and incrementally, varying by domain – you might trust someone in one aspect but not in another. Distrust, however, is a distinct, pervasive perception. It’s not just low trust; it represents a complete write-off of someone or an institution. When you distrust, you likely view all actions and intentions negatively, often suspecting ulterior motives. Unlike trust, which can vary in degree, distrust acts like a deep basin at the bottom of the trust continuum. Once in the realm of distrust, it’s very challenging to move out of it, making it qualitatively different from simply having low trust. A key trigger for distrust is the perception of value incongruence. When someone perceives another’s values or worldview as fundamentally different from their own, it can lead to distrust. While having congruent values can enhance trust, moderate disagreements in values might only slightly reduce trust. However, when there are deep and significant value discrepancies, it shifts the situation into the realm of distrust.
Project for a Dutch Court
In a study involving a Dutch court, Sim Sitkin, along with Antoinette Weibel and Katinka Bijlsma-Frankema, investigated the distrust between court administrators and legal professionals. The administrators prioritized operational efficiency, while the judicial side focused on the practice of law, even if inefficient. This value incongruence led to a breakdown in communication and distrust. Sitkin and his colleagues’ findings suggest that addressing distrust isn’t the same as building trust. While competence, benevolence, and integrity are key to building trust, they are not as effective in resolving distrust. Instead, overcoming distrust requires finding and emphasizing shared values and perspectives. This involves increasing interaction and focusing on similarities rather than differences. In the court case, once the parties recognized their shared values and increased their interactions, they began to rebuild trust. This approach suggests that perceived fundamental differences might not be as insurmountable as initially thought and that focusing on common ground can be a crucial step in overcoming distrust.
Are competence, benevolence, and integrity equally important when it comes to building trust?
In discussing the importance of competence, benevolence, and integrity in building trust, Sim Sitkin challenges the view that they are equally important. Sitkin’s work suggests that while competence is important, it becomes relevant only after establishing a relational connection, where benevolence is crucial. Benevolence, or the perception that someone genuinely cares about your welfare, is essential for trust. Competence matters, but its positive impact is contingent on the presence of benevolence. For instance, in the case of a political rival or enemy, increased competence won’t foster trust if there’s no benevolence. In fact, without benevolence, higher competence could be viewed negatively rather than positively.
We found things like competence are important once you’ve established certain kinds of relational connections with the person, that’s where benevolence comes in. So I would argue that for trust, benevolence is essential, competence is helpful. And the example I like to use is imagine you have a political rival or even an enemy, will you trust them more because they’re more competent, even though there is not a shred of benevolence between you, you first want to know that someone actually cares about your welfare. Then you’re going to be more open to them. Once you know they care about your welfare, then you do want them to be competent, that’s going to matter, because I’m not going to rely on you the same way if you’re not competent. But benevolence can make higher competence a negative factor rather than a positive factor.
The company IDEO and bureaucracy and organizational culture
Sitkin highlights the importance of bureaucracy and organizational culture as positive forces when well executed. A key example is the design firm Ideo. Despite its emphasis on creativity, Ideo employs a mix of formal and informal controls that are respected by its staff. These controls are recognized as tools for facilitating shared goals and processes, rather than as constraints. This respect is partly because the administrators themselves are creative individuals who share the same values as their staff. The Ideo case illustrates that when control systems are perceived as being aligned with collective goals and values, they enhance trust rather than undermine it.
Similarly with culture, the informal controls of culture solve a lot of problems when they’re done well and when they’re well designed. But certainly there are cases we can all think of where they don’t work well. One of my favorite examples of this is the product design company Ideo, it’s considered one of the most creative, innovative companies in the world, they hire people who are these wild and crazy creative types, yet when they solve problems, they also have a procedure where the phrase that was used is the self-appointed adults come in and say, okay, we’ve got to stop what we were doing, we’re going to shift, and we’re going to do this instead. Now, why does that work? Why wouldn’t the creative types just rebel and distrust the motives of the administrators? The answer is the administrators are also creative types. They know they share the values whenever they’re not wearing that hat of being the I’m the adult in the room, they’re right in there being creative and wild and crazy, and the people they know the systems were put in place, whether they’re formal controls or informal controls, and they have both, they’re put in place to facilitate what we all think is most important, both in our process, in the way we do things and what our goals are.
General Field Theory
Sim Sitkin, in collaboration with Chris Long, Audrey Korsgaard, and Tony Cohn, hopes to develop a general field theory that integrates the somewhat isolated research areas of distrust, trust, and generalized trust. This theory aims to explore the similarities and differences between these concepts and to understand the factors that lead to generalized trust or distrust, as well as remedies for moving out of these states.