The Role of Trust In Relationships:
The greater the trust, the more fragile it is to acts of betrayal.
It is impossible to construct a completely accurate spectrum of trust for a number of reasons. Firstly; evaluating trust accurately does not lend itself to being pinpointed on a spectral line. Any real world relationships are part of a relational system that has a number of types of relationships going on at once. It is possible to have ambivalent, self reinforcing and self canceling factors working at once in a given relational climate. This can be further complicated by the fact that there are senders and receivers in any communication and a certain inefficiency in the transfer of information occurs within system. There is also the potential for a difference between the perception and the reality. Couple this with the fact that a confused climate is a fertile ground for misplaced trust, either toward too much, or too little, and we can see some of the difficulties in formulating a completely accurate model.
The bottom line is, trust is a complicated relational climate that would take quite a bit more effort to unpack with clarity than can be tackled in a brief outline of the spectrum of trust being targeted here. This outline attempts to propose a simple and useful lens for understanding trust in general, and how various levels of trust impact social relationship structures like personal relationships, families, organizations and so on.
There is no doubt trust plays a crucial role in relationships. If we examine the foundation of trust relationships in a social context, they range from a dominance based, forced compliance model at the low end of the spectrum – where people do things because they trust some consequence will happen or they are overwhelmed by force – to a shared identity, committed trust based model where activities are centered on actively filling each other’s needs and defending the integrity of the community – where the separate participants in the relationship form a singular body out of unified purpose. Social relationships that last and those that generate the most value in terms of emergent novel properties, are built on trust relationships at the higher end of this spectrum.
The currency of trust defines the nature of a relationship system. Antagonistic trusts, at the low end of spectrum, generate stress, demand higher energy toward fight or flight mechanisms, and are the source of instability which can lead to a cascade of failures in the integrity of the relationship body. Relationships at the higher end of the spectrum, toward a shared identity committed trust environment, generate a climate built on filling each other’s needs and the defense of the integrity of the system in the form of an immune system. A high trust environment does not have to apply energy toward suspicion, regulation, aggression and the antagonistic feedback that arises from aggression – all of which compromise the strength of integrity in a low trust environment. Each entity within a shared identity, committed trust environment is inclined to fill the needs of the community, as well as being open to receive the benefits from the community.
This model uses four levels of trust to present a picture of the lowest to the highest forms. They are as follows:
- Forced Compliance Based Trust
- Cost/Benefit Based Trust
- Mutual Advantage Based Trust
- Shared Identity Commitment Based Trust
Forced Compliance Based Trust: This is the lowest level of trust, built on the expectation that a credible threat of force is needed to motivate actions. Social structures are established “as if” the underlying expectation is that all social behaviors are motivated the same way physical behaviors are – i.e. that a sufficient force must be applied to motivate all actions. The idea runs on the premise that no behaviors are motivated out of a social commitment, only compliance built on sheer force or fear.
Forced compliance trust environments have a “physics” only view of reality. It is true that squinting our eyes and wishing a 25 kg rock will be lifted by virtue of wishful thinking is not an effective strategy. Something above 25 kg of force is needed to lift the rock. We can reasonably expect the law of gravity to be fairly and evenly enforced if we jump, swing a pendulum, etc., so acting according to these expectations in physical reality is reasonable. In social settings, a forced compliance based trust treats people as if they operate solely on the same principle as physical objects. The underlying assumption of the necessity for forced compliance is present, so social structures are set up to motivate by force (either real or perceived) in order to get things done.
For instance; punishment mechanisms might be used as a motivation to perform work. Throughout history, slave economies are built on this coercive model. Money can also serve as a form of forced compliance, when necessary resources are controlled (by force) and money is demanded as a means to gain access to those basic needs. Whenever people comply out of the expectation of negative consequence, then forced compliance based trust is at work.
In social terms, forced compliance structures woven into the fabric of social systems has the net effect of giving rise to linear hierarchical pecking orders. A social position spectrum emerges that ranges from top exploiter to bottom exploited, as well as all the gradients in between. Social structures built on forced compliance breed the need for increasing energy devoted to force because of a push-back effect from the bottom exploited class. The more elements of forced compliance present in a social system, the more forced compliance is needed to maintain the stability of that system. Eventually this expanding demand for energy devoted to compliance can consume the available energy needed to maintain the integrity of the social system, first to the point where it inhibits further growth and then to the threshold where it destabilizes the social structure. Cycles of revolution echo repeatedly in the feedback loop generated by a forced compliance atmosphere. This is where oppressor and oppressed repeatedly change roles over time.
The gravitation toward roles along the exploiter – exploited spectrum results from the influence of the unspoken communication that telegraphs through the forced compliance social structure. It communicates about the expected social roles in a society context coupled with how we humans have a tendency to behave according to perceived expectations. The Stanford Prison experiments are one example of how humans shape themselves according to expectations. This is where people off the street dressed as prisoner or guard began acting out their roles so heavily that the experiment had to be stopped. The fundamental structure a social system is built on has a powerful influence on shaping the behaviors that emerge from the structure.
Cost/Benefit Based Trust: This is a relationship dynamic based in projections and promises along with perhaps some facts such as reputation. It is a decision to engage in relationship based on a cost/benefit analysis, weighing the potential benefit of creating and sustaining the relationship against the projected cost. Generally, both parties are looking for some gain which the proposed partnership could yield, but deterrence, or force, is still a factor. If at any time if the cost is perceived as outweighing the benefit, the relationship is terminated. In this case, the party that perceives the harm must also be willing to follow through on severing ties, otherwise the relationship shifts from trust to abuse. Engaging in a optional business relationship is an example of Cost/Benefit trust. A partnership forged on mutual needs like the that found in danger situations, mountain climbing or certain critical business partnerships are based on cost/benefit trust. Depending on how the relationship progresses, cost/benefit trust relationships can be fertile soil for higher trust relationships to grow from.
Mutual Advantage Based Trust: This can emerge out of cost/benefit based trust once enough information from experience emerges. Predictability comes from a relationship over time. If this is perceived as an advantage, mutual advantage based trust emerges. Control in the form of threats of deterrence diminish as more authentic trust bond forms and strengthens. Less energy is applied to verification and more is applied to accelerating the potential that comes from sharing each other’s strengths. Mutual advantage based trust is the range within the spectrum of trust relationships where the relational emphasis can shift from compliance to commitment. All parties can begin to apply their full energies towards taking advantage of each others strengths. This is where the full potential of emergent value can arise. Emergent values are those where the outcome is more than the sum of its parts.
Shared Identity Commitment Based Trust: This happens when the relationship is fully committed – where both or (all) parties seek to understand and fully endorse one another – when each party willingly commits to act as an agent for the other’s interests in a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship. No one has to ask, no one has to threaten, no one has to hope or worry about the commitment, each party in the relationship inquires about the others needs and responds by actively seeking to meet them. The relationship is no longer based on threats or promises, it is based on a fully realized intimacy. The once separate parties become one body. If one part is hurt, the whole body feels the pain. There are no secrets in this climate. They are no longer necessary as a means of protection. Intimate trust has not dissolved the differences, but it has dissolved the boundaries between the parties, which now assume a common identity. In the case of personal relationships, co-habitation, communal sharing of properties and resources, and the like cultivate a strength through community. In the case of business, co-location, joint development of products and services, shared vision, values, goals and the like are all possible in this high trust climate. Compliance based behaviors and the need for policing, deterrence and the like disappear as full commitment defines the relationship climate.
The lowest form of trust is Forced Compliance Based Trust. Behaviors are motivated by the fear or expectation of punishment for non compliance. Next up is relationships based on Cost/Benefit Based Trust. These use a cost-benefit analysis with a deterrence (force) factor, where the relationship will break down if the benefit is not realized. Next is relationships based on Mutual Advantage Based Trust. These emerge from a Cost/Benefit Based Trust relationship once enough positive information from experience emerges. In a developing system the recognition of mutual advantage is where the relational emphasis shifts from compliance behaviors to commitment. All parties in the system begin to apply energies toward taking advantage of each others strengths, and the emergent strengths that occur as a result of the relationships also begin to develop. Finally; relationships based on Shared Identity Commitment Based Trust happen once the relationships are fully committed – where all parties act as agents for the other’s interests. When no one has to ask, and each party is actively interested in identifying and meeting the needs of the community.
Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “The medium is the message” as a way of describing that the structure a medium is based on embeds itself in the messages that are able to be carried by that medium. A symbiotic relationship between the medium and what it is capable of communicating influences how the messages are perceived in the context of that medium. Social structures are mediums of communication. A forced compliance model, in social terms, breeds more conflict because it expects it. Suspicious minds breed suspicious activity so to speak. Conversely, high trust social models, that also attend appropriately to the necessities of defense, set the expectation for mutually nourishing community strengthening behaviors as the predominant form of behavior. The structure on which a social system is formed sets the tone for what kind of behaviors emerge from this system, and this is true across the entire spectrum of trusts.
What are your relationships based on? Do you think you have a realistic view of the trust you should place in yourself and others? Are you authentic? How does integrity play out in a relationship field where there are well skilled posers? What do you think we can do to effectively cultivate the climate of trust in which we live and on which our experience of life is founded? What impact do you think this would this have on our world?