I love paradox, as anyone can tell from the name of the research center that I run with John Seely Brown in Silicon Valley – the Center for the Edge. Paradox is basically a puzzle, often juxtaposing two elements that at first seem like contradictions or at least defy explanation. Isn’t a center for the edge a contradiction in terms? How could that be? By engaging with a paradox and trying to sort through the apparent contradiction, one can often generate profound new insights that expand understanding.
Framing the Trust Paradox
A couple of weeks ago at a gathering in Paris sponsored by the Orange Institute, I explored a paradox that is central to the challenges and opportunities we face as individuals and institutions in the Big Shift. I call it the Trust Paradox.
In a nutshell, here’s the paradox. Everyone thinks that trust is important. Have you ever heard of anyone questioning whether trust is important to build and maintain, either for individuals or institutions? We all strive to build trust. In fact, it becomes increasingly valuable in a time of mounting uncertainty and performance pressure.
Yet, at the same time, trust in individuals and institutions is eroding. Survey after survey quantifies the erosion in trust in all of our institutions – corporations, news services, educational institutions, governments, even charities. And it’s not just institutions. Trust in leaders, whether CEO’s, teachers or government officials is also eroding. How can this be?
That’s the nub of the paradox: We all agree that trust is increasingly important but trust is rapidly eroding. What is going on? The resolution of this paradox has enormous importance for all of us who are trying to find ways to succeed in an increasingly challenging world.
But, how to resolve this paradox? It turns out that the very practices that helped us to build trust in the past are now contributing to the erosion of trust. The harder we work at building trust the more rapidly it erodes. In fact, the approaches now required to build trust are deeply subversive of the institutions that have emerged over the past century.
Traditional approaches to building trust
What do I mean? Perhaps the best way to explain is by starting with the conventional wisdom around building brands, the very essence of trust in our business world. Listen to all the management experts on how to build brands and the message is clear. You build a brand by identifying your key strengths and aggressively communicating them. If you have credentials and accomplishments, by all means prominently feature those to establish credibility. If you have any weaknesses, hide them. Brands are not built on weaknesses, but strengths.
This wisdom is now broadly applied to the individual as well as the institution. It has become commonplace to talk about “personal brands.” To succeed in an increasingly competitive world, we all need to develop and communicate our “personal brand.” How do we do that? Well, the same way that corporations do it – by emphasizing credentials and strengths and hiding weaknesses. You want to communicate an image of power, being in complete control of your environment.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? Well, it used to. When we lived in a world of knowledge stocks, this was a formula that led to deep trust. Success was all about what you knew that no one else knew and your ability to apply that knowledge in distinctive and repeatable ways. Think about all the most trusted brands of the past century and that formula is clearly behind the creation and maintenance of those brands.
That formula didn’t just work for companies. It was also behind the success of a broad range of institutions in building trust with their stakeholders – whether media, educational institutions, or national governments. It applied to individuals as well, whether Walter Cronkite or Jack Welch. These were strong people, people who never seemed at a loss for an explanation, people who understood the way the world worked. You would never catch them fumbling for an answer. They had deep knowledge stocks that gave them the ability to be in control within their domain. You could trust them.
New approaches to building trust
So, what has changed? Well, in a world that is more rapidly changing and where uncertainty displaces certainty wherever we look, knowledge stocks have less value. They depreciate at an accelerating rate. Trust built on knowledge stocks becomes less compelling.
Worse than that, what used to build trust, now erodes it. Think about it. In a more and more challenging world where we constantly confront situations that we never encountered before, what is our reaction when someone presents an image of great strength and complete control, with no weaknesses? We don’t trust them.
We know that we are all human beings, possessing unique strengths but also great weaknesses. We are all increasingly challenged as we face mounting performance pressures. If someone only presents strengths and accomplishments, we know they are not sharing with us the full picture. If they don’t trust us enough to share their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, why would we ever trust them?
And all those credentials and certifications that were so important in the past, what do we think of them now? In a world that is so rapidly changing, they mean less. Sure they provide external confirmation of knowledge stocks, but those knowledge stocks are rapidly depreciating. What we learned or did in the past is much less compelling that we are learning or doing now.
At a deeply personal level, trust is built by sharing vulnerability. If you really trust someone, you will share your vulnerability. It is not only OK, but necessary – it is the foundation of a trust-based relationship. But this is exactly the opposite of what we were taught in a world of knowledge stocks. This is why the new approaches to building trust are so deeply subversive - they require us to challenge the most basic assumptions of the conventional wisdom of the past and to act in ways that directly contradict what we believed in the past.
The shifting balance of trust
One way to think about trust is in terms of will and skill. In deciding whether to trust someone, we focus on two basic questions. First, do they have the values, conviction and courage to do the right thing? Second, do they have the capability and skills to do the right thing?
In more stable times, the balance of trust was on assessing capability and skills – it was clear what was required to deliver expected value and one could assess those capability and skills through track records of performance. As we move into more unstable times, the balance of trust shifts from skill to will.
Existing skills are less relevant; the key question is whether the person or institution has what it takes to embrace uncertainty and work together to find a way to continue to deliver value even when the skills of the past are called into question. This shift in the balance of trust has a number of profound implications.
Trust used to be largely backward looking – did the person or the institution have a track record indicating that they had the necessary skills to deliver results? In these more uncertain times where skills have a depreciating half-life, the focus shifts to a forward looking question – does the person or institution have the values and disposition required to learn faster by working together in times of increasing uncertainty and rapid change? Can they be relied upon even though their existing skills are increasingly challenged and undermined by rapid change?
Trust in business also used to be very domain specific. In a more stable world, I could trust my doctor or financial advisor based on an assessment of domain specific skills – did they have the right credentials and experience relevant to the specific domain? I didn’t invest as much time in trying to learn about them as people and explore the values and dispositions that drove them.
Now, trust is becoming less domain specific. There is a need to be able to quickly integrate new knowledge, coming often from quite distant and unexpected domains. Now the trust becomes much more general and personal – is this a person who can be trusted to respond appropriately to unexpected challenges and mobilize the personal and institutional resources required to come up with productive solutions even when the questions have never been seen before and require reaching far beyond the domain in question for answers. It becomes much more a question about personal attributes than impersonal skills.
Another way of framing the shifting balance of trust is from push to pull. In the past, trust was a matter of assessing whether the person had the skills already in place to push the right solution at the right time. Now, the question is whether the person has what it takes to pull out innovative solutions to unexpected situations by drawing out whatever resources might be required whenever they might be needed.
In the shifting balance of trust, willingness to express vulnerability becomes much more central. People who do not express vulnerability either have little awareness that their existing strengths or skills are increasingly challenged or they are unwilling to share the vulnerabilities they know they have. In either case, one begins to doubt whether they have the will to work together in developing creative new approaches to address unanticipated challenges and opportunities.
The importance of passion as a foundation of trust
So, how do we overcome the natural instinct we all have to avoid expressing vulnerability? How do we build trust today? One way to build trust is to pursue our passion. As I explored in an earlier post, passion helps to build trust based relationships. Think about any person you know who is deeply engaged in pursuing a passion. How do they present themselves? They have no time or patience for crafting a façade that showcases strengths and hides weaknesses. They present themselves as who they are, warts and all. What you see is what you get.
Even more importantly, they are quick to share vulnerability. Within a short period in any conversation, a passionate person is sharing with others the problems that are keeping them up at night, the questions that they have not been able to answer. They share these problems and questions because they find them exciting, not something to hide, but something to share to see if they can get help in pursuing them. As a result, people who have the passion of the explorer are quick to build trust – they express vulnerability and make it safer for you to express your own vulnerability.
They use vulnerability to amplify knowledge flows, rather than jealously guarding knowledge stocks. They are driven to learn as much as they can as fast they can by connecting to a larger and more diverse range of knowledge flows. How can they learn if they are unwilling to share the problems and questions that occupy their attention?
This is particularly valuable as we move from a world of knowledge stocks to a world of knowledge flows. The knowledge that turns out to be most valuable in a world of accelerating change is tacit knowledge, the knowledge that is in our heads and that has not yet been expressed in the documents and texts that Google can so effortlessly help us find. In fact, we have a very difficult time articulating tacit knowledge. If we try to express this tacit knowledge we are likely to stumble and fumble as we struggle to find the right words. We risk making mistakes and embarrassing ourselves.
As a result, tacit knowledge is remarkably sticky, in the words of my colleague and friend, John Seely Brown. It does not flow readily. In fact, one of the most powerful ways to access tacit knowledge is in the context of trust-based relationships. If we really trust someone else, we are much more likely to take the risks involved in sharing tacit knowledge. So, trust builds advantage by providing privileged access to tacit knowledge. But first we have to be willing to share vulnerability. JSB emphasizes that tacit knowledge flows when there is shared practice. There are many reasons for this, but certainly one of them is that shared practice builds trust – you can quickly see each other’s strengths and vulnerabilities in action.
The shift from masculine archetype to feminine archetype
What is another implication of exploring the trust paradox? Success in the future will involve scaling back the masculine archetype and giving the feminine archetype more prominence, something that I discussed in a previous post.
The masculine archetype is all about projecting strength and not sharing weakness. Machismo is the epitome of the masculine archetype. In contrast, the feminine archetype expresses vulnerability much more readily. As I have suggested before, the future belongs to the feminine archetype as we move from a world of knowledge stocks to knowledge flows.
Making it personal
OK, so I can hear you asking, does John practice what he preaches? Does he express his vulnerabilities? Now, that’s a great question.
In truth, I try but I am not yet very good at it. Like most males, I learned early on that vulnerability means weakness, that it creates risk and that it is dangerous. On top of that, I developed an intense shyness as a child that made it very difficult for me to connect with others on a personal level, much less share vulnerabilities. Painful experiences in my childhood also made it very difficult for me to express my emotions, even to myself. I retreated into the world of books and ideas, consumed in intellectual pursuits that allowed me to escape feelings that represented danger. I connected with people through ideas, preferably through reading and writing.
Over time, I began to recognize the limitations in engaging with the world in this way. I began a concerted effort to change, often stumbling along the way. My evolving passion provided an early catalyst for connection – I felt a need to reach out and connect with people in order to pursue my passion.
Because of my passion, I instinctively share the problems and questions that consume me. When I first set up the Center for the Edge, I gave a major talk that focused on the questions that I thought were really interesting but that I could not yet answer. In recent months, I have gone around to various conferences giving a presentation that focuses on questions regarding how to redesign workplaces to accelerate talent development. I freely admit that don’t have the answer for this, but I think the questions are hugely interesting and engaging. I am reaching out to try to connect with others who share my fascination with this question.
On a personal level, one of the most interesting exercises that I did was to try to craft a “25 Random Things” note on Facebook that focused not on ideas and concepts, but sharing much more personal things, including some of my vulnerabilities. The response was amazing. Rather than creating risk, it created amazing opportunity, connecting me to people in ways that I never would have imagined possible. In particular, I found that I built trust with people much more broadly and rapidly. It encouraged me to make more effort to share, a path that I am still traveling, nourished by the response that I am receiving along the way.
What are your vulnerabilities? What are the problems and questions that you are working on that you have not yet resolved? How active have you been in expressing these to others? Can you really build trust without this?