If Trust Is The Glue Of A Network. . .

. . . we can’t have too many honest & authentic discussions about it.

And talking about trust can be hard in any context, but in some ways it’s even harder in networks. So many of the ‘rules’ are contrary to what most civilized people have grown to expect. So many norms are being re-written. Networks require diversity – and our different cultures have different norms and cues for trust & trustworthiness.

So while we all have a similar sense of what it feels like to trust & to have earned trust – we don’t always know how to talk about lost trust, yet-to-be-earned trust, confusing hints of potential untrustworthiness, or flat-out triggers for intense dis-trust. And as we find our way into this new kind of collective effectiveness, across gaps we’re still struggling to manage with love, transparency, and wisdom, not knowing how to talk about trust can be a big stumbling block.

We want net-work to feel cozy & kumbayah-ish – but in reality, networks are hard work. And developing trust in network contexts doesn’t just happen.

I think about trust a lot. Moving from a traumatized childhood where I learned to trust absolutely nothing, through decades of learning to let go of layer after layer of mistrust (which isn’t to say there aren’t plenty more layers to work through), I’ve long recognized trust (both coming & going) as a significant leverage point in my own life. And in recent years have witnessed & analyzed the profound impact of trust and it’s lack in a broad range of collective efforts.

All of which has made me very sensitive to trust in group contexts. I spend a lot of time contemplating its nuances & trying to discuss them. And I’ve noticed that people are generally really uncomfortable discussing trust (esp. non-trust). And more often than not, people are on very different wavelengths when they try to discuss the real trust-issues that are going on between them.

Breaking it Down

When trust isn’t working, there’s a world of dynamics it can be related to, which has prompted me to begin to categorize trust into types, in hopes of making it easier to discuss. Right now I’m seeing these three major categories that are especially relevant in networks:

  1. ‘Relational Trust’
  2. ‘Functional Trust’
  3. And ‘Flow of Value Trust’

I’ve found that misunderstandings about trust often arise when one person or sub-group is talking about (or asking for, or upset about) things related to one type of trust, while another person or sub-group is talking about  (or asking for, or upset about) things related to another type of trust.

And often, especially when there are big differences in privilege & power, or culture, all three types of mis-trust get triggered and they’re all so tangled together, it’s hard to have any kind of discussion at all. But without those discussions, either forward momentum breaks down, or people stop showing up entirely.

So what do these categories consist of?

Relational Trust

Relational trust relates to how we treat one another – it means that you generally have faith that I won’t:

  • Try to have power over you or others like you.
  • Use my greater privileges (to the degree I have them) to take advantage of or marginalize you.
  • Engage in debate simply in order to be right or maintain/gain control of the group.
  • Dominate or monopolize conversations, while offering little of value.
  • Judge/belittle/dismiss your differences.
  • Hurt/accuse/shame you unnecessarily.
  • Try to force you to be something you’re not.
  • Expect/demand things from you that I know you can’t give, or haven’t agreed to give.
  • Reject or dismiss the value that you DO bring to the table, just because it’s not one I have, or recognize, or am looking for.
  • Refuse to be responsible for my own part in a misunderstanding.
  • Ridicule or exploit your weaknesses.
  • Say things behind your back that I won’t say to your face.
  • Keep conflicts with you to myself, letting them fester & undermine our relationship.
  • Penalize you for being authentic & speaking your truth.

In other words, having earned relational trust from you means that I will treat you with respect for your dignity and basic human compassion, and make space for your voice – regardless of the differences between us.

Functional Trust

Functional trust relates to how we get things done together – it means you can count on me to:

  • Keep my promises & do what I say I’ll do.
  • Do things in the timeframe we agreed upon.
  • Communicate fully & in enough detail to be sure that our shared expectations are clear & mutually agreeable.
  • Be honest with you about my limitations when you ask me to do things I can’t do, or aren’t sure I can do in the time necessary or as well as necessary (i.e I don’t make promises I can’t keep).
  • Be available & responsive to you as needed to move shared work forward.
  • Be flexible about expectations as much as possible, i.e. not impose my personal perfectionist ideals where not crucial to our outcomes. or not criticize work that’s good enough because I would have done it better (You’re here to contribute what’s meaningful to you and useful to the whole, not live up to my ideals).
  • Not make things harder than necessary or create extra unintended work for you.
  • Not withhold needed info.
  • Be willing to hold you accountable & to be held accountable myself.
  • Carry appropriate weight – not just show up, expect to have a voice & withhold contributions I’m able to offer.
  • Move things forward when I’m capable of moving forward on my own. i.e. I won’t wait for some higher authority to bless everything I do & won’t turn you or someone else into the bottleneck unnecessarily.
  • Work with you respectfully to resolve problems when changes are necessary.
  • Work through disappointments & accountabilities rather than let them turn into personality conflicts.
  • Not dump stuff on you at the last minute.
  • Help you/others when projects get stuck and problem-solve when the unexpected occurs.

Having earned functional trust means that you know I will do my best to work smoothly, supportively, and reliably with you, regardless of our relative roles, for the best possible collective outcomes.

Flow-of-Value Trust

Flow-of-Value trust is about complex reciprocity, competition & exploitation – and it’s deep & taboo.

Especially where there are big differences in economic status, power/privilege or location in the stakeholder map, no-one wants to look at this one, even obliquely. But for people who have been exploited or steeped too long in involuntary scarcity – it’s fundamental to their ability & willingness to engage at all.

Even if it’s never even alluded to out loud – I can assure, it’s constantly being monitored. And the slightest gesture speaks volumes to those for whom it’s in question.

Flow-of-Value trust means, essentially, that you trust that I:

  • Won’t exploit you.
  • Won’t extract personal value from you w/o contributing value (directly or indirectly) to you or others like you, or to the dream that we share.
  • Won’t waste your time & hope & willingness with grand visions of benefit you or your people, that I have either no real intention, or no real ability to actually impact. i.e. I won’t consume you with my do-gooder dreams w/o having the wherewithall to make at least some of the impact I espouse.
  • Won’t appropriate YOUR ideas/insights/process & go make money off of them, or ‘learn from’ YOUR experience and then add your insights to MY income-model to enhance MY income stream & not benefit you (that kind of capitalist behavior may be perfectly normal in most worlds, but to those of us w/o the access or understanding of how to turn our own knowledge/skills into money, it’s extremely untrustworthy).
  • Won’t use YOUR ideas/insights/process to get an edge over you in competing for grants.
  • Won’t show-off a relationship with you merely to enhance my own image or open doors, w/o making every effort to be a conscious, humble & effective ally (like – a white person showing off friends of color to seem hipper than she really is).
  • Won’t use YOUR challenges/oppressions as the reason-d’etre for MY initiative & not create an equal place at the table for your voice (like homeless shelters that don’t give homeless people a voice in decision-making, or anti-trafficking groups that deny the relevance of prostitutes’ experience).
  • In other words, I won’t benefit personally from your involvement or our connection w/o ensuring that you benefit too.

Having earned Flow-of-Value Trust means that you feel safe engaging complex reciprocity in a network with me – it enhances your willingness to contribute. Or, it at least supports your willingness to show up.

That’s a LOT of touchy stuff that could be talked about! So as you can see, ‘Trust’ is probably too big & encompassing to be negotiated whole – mightn’t it help to break it down into manageable bits?

When you’re trying to earn trust, when you’re deciding whether or not TO trust, or when trust has been violated – what, really, are you talking about? And where are you willing, and unwilling to take it?

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