Rebuilding trust in a less trusting environment

Tuesday, Nov 23, 2021, 12:17 AM | Source: Pursuit

Siew Fang Law

In the wake of lockdowns, enforced isolation and border closures as the cost of controlling COVID-19 in Australia, many of us find ourselves in a new kind of trust crisis.

Pandemic-related interventions have forced us to live with a version of “stranger-danger”. We were constantly reminded to keep apart and stay away from other humans. The unknown became dangerous. Misinformation spread easily through social media algorithms.

Lockdown promoted a sense of “stranger danger” and people may need to readjust. Picture: Shutterstock

Now, as restrictions ease, we are required to place our trust in governments and workplaces to negotiate a changing environment and new layers of ‘freedom’ to interact in wider social, economic and cultural circles.

Research has shown that people are increasingly less trusting of one another, but the pandemic has amplified this phenomenon.

According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, people are less trusting of both the wealthy and the poor, those with less education and people with fewer resources. People are less trusting of societal leaders, unsure that they will do what is right, but are more trusting of local leaders. Trust in information sources is at an all-time low.

Yet trust is the lubricant and glue for any well-functioning public engagement, and it is an imperative ingredient for partnerships across industry, education and community. Trust (or a lack of it) impacts everything we do. So, while sometimes distrust is clearly merited, we can come to distrust too much.

How trust operates

Transitioning from feeling disbelief and disempowerment to trusting again can require personal action on an everyday level. To attain trust, it’s useful to know more about how it operates, and following this, learn how to build more trust at both a personal and professional level.

Surveys suggest that people are becoming less trusting. Picture: Getty Images

Trust and distrust are a dynamic duo that responds to everyday micro-level social interactions. While there are a variety of definitions for trust, by trust I mean the action where one risks making something that is important to us vulnerable to the actions of someone else. Distrust occurs when we decide that sharing what is important to us isn’t safe with a particular person or organisation.

These everyday micro-level acts are shared through the ways we communicate, in our spoken language, and in non-verbal (physical) interactions. We evaluate whether we can trust a person through their actions, including through such seemingly trivial matters, like whether they return an email, how long it takes to receive a reply, and whether there was a quick check-in and/or courtesy phone call.

These small, micro-everyday actions matter in all relationships, from intimate relationships and friendships to business partnerships and even international diplomacy – the deterioration in the relationship between our Prime Minister and the President of France is a case in point.

Trust is important to give us a sense of agency, which when lost can be regained through these sorts of everyday, micro-level interactions.

How to rebuild trust?

As many people return to workplaces and begin socialising in public spaces, we are re-learning to navigate trust with colleagues and collaborators. Research has found positive correlations between an ethical environment and trust, and between trust and employee engagement.

When rebuilding trust with each other “micro-everyday actions” matter. Picture: Getty Images

A body of research on trust suggests that we can make sense of trust via four main domains – reliability, integrity, capability and benevolence.

When we are assessing whether someone in our personal life is trustworthy, we would need to ask: Are they dependable? Are they honest and fair? Are they kind? We can use these same questions to determine whether someone would want to trust us. And if it’s a professional interaction, we would also want to ask, ‘Do they have the right knowledge and skills?’

Using these domains as a reference point, we can ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Which of the domains did you feel the least certain about?
  • Which of the domains gives you the greatest sense of comfort?
  • Which domain needs more work?

You may wish to talk through your doubts, write them down, or simply reflect on your experience.

Considering trust is a result as well as a condition of social interaction processes, people do search for novel ways to trust each other to suit an evolving social environment.

Showing empathy and holding space (being non-judgemental and listening) after a difference of opinion at work instead of reacting with anger and judgement can shift the dynamic. While one may not agree with the other person’s views, micro-level acts of kindness can bring profound change to the people with whom we interact. Some of the outcomes can be greater mindfulness and enhanced trust.

Empathy and kindness can build trust. Picture: Getty Images

It can be useful to think about our actions or approaches against a set of relational principles that are important to us. Relational principles ground us when everything is uncertain and shifting. For example, my principles are respect, mutuality, reciprocity, equity and sustainability.

Whenever I feel unsettled in a particular social encounter, I refer to my relational principles, which gives me the necessary orientation to guide my actions. These actions may be to establish clearer boundaries or to have a greater openness to the unknown.

It is important to know that our principles usually don’t change, even when everything else is changing.

Making time to reflect on our principles and how they relate to the levels of trust we feel in a situation or encounter can help us to navigate new and evolving complex socio-cultural and political terrains.

Having the four domains of trust and a set of relational principles as our ‘pocket guide’ in this period of re-connection can assist us in regaining the confidence we need to trust ourselves and each other in both ordinary and novel everyday situations.

This article is an extract of an online presentation delivered at the LH Martin Institute 2021 Conference on October 28, 2021.

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University of Melbourne Researchers