Trust has become something of a buzzword. Most people will acknowledge that it’s important, yet many see it as a byproduct of other activities, rather than something that should be cultivated deliberately.
On the contrary, the web of connections that develops between participants is the invisible structure that holds all types of collaborative communities together, including working groups, networks, and DAOs. A failure to cultivate trusting relationships is where many communities fall short.
Trust is the element that makes possible all of a community’s other virtues and accomplishments. Specifically:
Trust creates cohesion while a community’s more formal structures and processes are being formed. Nascent communities are unlikely to have many formal agreements in the early stages of their evolution. During this time, it may be difficult for some participants to sit with the ambiguity. Trusting in each other and in the group helps people to be more comfortable with emergence—to explore, experiment, reflect, and self-correct in real time. People also become more willing to share information and take risks. Trust is the glue that keeps a group together as participants develop additional structures for organizing themselves.
Trust increases the group’s collective intelligence and avoids the pitfalls of conformism and groupthink. Under the right conditions, groups are capable of thoughtful discernment and collective intelligence greater than that of any single individual. Lack of openness to others’ perspectives is arguably the greatest obstacle to a group’s ability to think and act intelligently. Our tendency, in the absence of trust, is to believe that our assumptions and projections are valid, that we know what others are thinking and feeling without asking them, and that maybe we are the only sane person in the room. Trust increases the likelihood that participants will listen with care, try on new perspectives, and engage with people they might consider to be very different from themselves.
Trust expands the range of possible conversations. People who trust each other are more forthright, more likely to share information, and more likely to show creativity in how they collaborate. With sufficient trust, people are better able to navigate through uncomfortable conversations and test each other’s assumptions without fear of harm. As a result, new perspectives are considered, and conflict becomes generative rather than destructive. The group’s ability to engage in constructive dialogue and make informed decisions grows as people feel free to speak their mind and acknowledge difficult realities or controversial points of view.
This shift has been critical to the success of the Clean Electronics Production Network (CEPN), a program of Green America’s Center for Sustainability Solutions, which has been supported by both Converge and the CoCreative consulting group. Participants of the CEPN include many major technology brands and environmental NGOs that are working together to address an issue that no single organization can solve on its own: moving toward zero exposure of workers to toxic chemicals in the electronics manufacturing process. Relationships between the electronics brands and NGOs were initially tense when the network launched in 2016. But over the past few years, “members have gotten to a point where they have enough trust to where they’re willing to share what’s working, what’s not working, and where they need help,” shares Pamela Brody-Heine, director of the CEPN. “Relationships have been transformed, and the communication between them is much more productive.”
Although it is widely accepted that trusting relationships are beneficial when it comes to collaboration, the common assumption is that trust is a byproduct of other activities and that it takes a long time to develop. Rather than deliberately building trust, the norm is to focus on getting to action and letting relationships develop naturally over time.
However, we have consistently found that trust is the single most important factor behind successful collaboration; communities move at the speed of trust. Therefore, trust should be deliberately nurtured from the outset of a community’s development. When working in collaboration with others, the time you spend cultivating relationships of trust is the greatest investment you can make—consider it a “return on relationships.”
Ingredients of Trust
Trust isn’t just a noun, it’s also a verb—it is something you do. It’s a choice people can make. We either choose to trust someone or choose not to trust them (or we can let our implicit biases make the choice for us). While trust takes time to deepen, we’ve found that it is possible to develop a foundational level of trust in a relatively short time.
Trusting another person requires an initial leap of faith, as it’s impossible to know exactly how things will turn out. The unfortunate reality is that by choosing to trust, you expose yourself to being burned. Nearly everyone has been betrayed at some point in their lives, and it can hurt, a lot. It hurts so badly that we might even put up a barrier between ourselves and others so it will never happen again. For some people who have been oppressed or experienced trauma, including intergenerational trauma, trust cannot be easily given—it has to be earned.
And yet, it’s hard to work with people you don’t trust. People collaborate based on relationships, not solely on ideas. Communities run on trust.
There are four primary ingredients that increase the likelihood that people will choose to trust one another, despite all the uncertainty that relationships bring:
Choosing to trust people is, in part, a judgment that they will be true to their word and follow through on their commitments. Trust grows through action. When people help each other by offering support or contributing to a project, it builds a foundation of goodwill. And when people prove their reliability time and time again by continuing to show up, stick around, and follow through, trust grows to a level of resilience that can withstand significant disruption.
Reliability doesn’t mean that people always have to respond positively to a request for support. It’s important that people feel free to decline when they don’t have the ability or capacity to help. Without space for “no,” there is no weight behind “yes.” Being reliable just means that when you say “yes,” you will do your best to follow through and keep others informed if something goes wrong. On the flip side, reliability also means that when you decline, others will respect and hold you accountable to that “no” as well.
Inevitably, in any relationship, miscommunications and moments of tension will arise. People may strongly disagree with one another about what to do next. Without sufficient trust, these disruptions can derail the relationship and stall action. Overcoming these rocky periods requires openness—the willingness to be honest and share what’s on your mind, as well as the ability to listen deeply and consider new perspectives.
In the absence of openness, our true emotions and opinions are often guarded or hidden under a professional mask. We also remain closed to new information, stubbornly holding on to past beliefs and closing off new possibilities. To be open is to be willing to share honest thoughts and feelings, even if it’s uncomfortable. By being open, we acknowledge interdependence and invite reciprocity. It’s sometimes assumed that being open with one another comes later, after trust has been developed, but openness is also a great catalyst of trust.
At times, being open may simply be too risky. This is particularly true for those who have been oppressed or experienced significant trauma. They know firsthand that people can and do use their power to exploit others for personal gain rather than collective good. For this reason, make sure to allow people the space they need to engage or not, and to honor distance where appropriate. When openness is not yet possible, a mutual commitment to care may be a first step.
For many, trust does not come easily, because past transgressions have revealed time and time again that people are not to be trusted. Often, the first step toward choosing trust comes when people recognize that others hold a mutual concern for something they care about. Even if it’s hard to trust another person directly, it might be easier to trust the love that someone has for their community or region, or for the network.
Critically, demonstrating care also involves acknowledging and then repairing harm. This may mean creating opportunities for those who have been harmed to share their experiences of past harms, and for those who have historically benefited from resources, unjust laws, and the displacement of others to listen, acknowledge the reality of those harmed, take action to repair the harm, and be accountable for doing whatever is necessary to ensure that harm will not be committed again.
To appreciate one another is to accept people as they are and to value different ways of being, knowing, and doing. People often come to networks with very different backgrounds, identities, experiences, and beliefs. A prerequisite to building trust between diverse groups is that diversity is recognized as a critical part of what makes networks thrive; after all, so much of the potential of network building comes from bridging connections across divides.
In practice, a culture of appreciation is one where many different styles and skills are valued and integrated. Deep trust is possible only when people are able to bring their whole selves to the network and contribute their gifts in whatever way they choose. To create a space where all participants are able to contribute fully, it is necessary to ensure that the dominant culture’s norms are not centered to the exclusion of others—in the United States, this means decentering whiteness such that other ways of being, knowing, and doing can flourish.
At an individual level, sharing appreciations also helps to get people out of their heads and into a heart-centered space, creating room for deeper connections to form. This is why we often have people offer appreciations at the end of a convening, asking them to reflect on “who or what are you appreciating right now?” Sharing appreciations in this way serves to reinforce the prosocial behaviors that the network wants to promote.
Trust creates a foundation of mutual respect upon which participants can hold whatever conversations they need to have to begin working together. In forming a community, we don’t build trust so that people will like each other or agree with each other. Rather, we build trust so that people can hold the tension through disagreement and conflict, find common ground, and work together to achieve mutual goals.
David Ehrlichman is a catalyst and coordinator of Converge, a network of practitioners who build and support impact networks. He is also author of Impact Networks: Create Connection, Spark Collaboration, and Catalyze Systemic Change and producer of the documentary Impact Networks: Creating Change in a Complex World. With his colleagues, he has helped form dozens of impact networks in a variety of fields, and was a founding coordinator for networks in the fields of environmental stewardship, economic mobility, urban revitalization, and Web3. He lives in the Pacific Northwest, finds serenity in music, and is completely mesmerized by his 10-month old daughter.
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