CIPD 2018: Trust can't be automated

Efficiency should never be substituted for trust, according to Oxford university lecturer and author of Who Can You Trust? Rachel Botsman

Speaking at the 2018 CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition Botsman suggested that we have come to value efficiency and speed so much we often make rash decisions on who we trust.

“You have to earn trust, and you have to continuously demonstrate that you are trustworthy. We are living in a time when we trust on speed. In so many different scenarios we are trying to automate trust, and we give away our trust far too easily to technology,” she said.

“Efficiency is actually the enemy of trust. You need friction, you need continuous effort. As human beings we’re often very good at trusting, but we often forget how high and how fast we’re expected to trust in our lives and in our jobs. It can be exhausting.”

While risk and trust are often seen as conflicting ideas Botsman explained that the two are intertwined.

"Organisations are very good at talking about risk, and it informs a lot of important decisions, but risk and trust have more in common than we might assume. The way I define trust is really simple: it’s a confident relationship with the unknown. When we understand this it starts to become clear why it’s so important for innovation, and why it's important to feel comfortable with innovation.”

Showing vulnerability is a key part of trust, she added: “You need to be vulnerable to build trust, and you need trust to be vulnerable. It’s a mixture of our highest hopes and our deepest fears and worries, and that’s why it hurts so much when it breaks down, that’s why it can create a scar that lasts years.”

Botsman pointed out that organisations often put an emphasis on transparency as a way of building trust, but that this is often misjudged.

“It’s really common for people to think that transparency will be this magic bullet for trust. But when you understand that trust is to do with the unknown you know that isn’t true. Trust and risk are brother and sister, trust and transparency are independent. If you need things to be transparent you’ve given up on trust.”

She added that while in some instances (such as gender pay gap reporting and conditions of work) transparency is a necessity it is often used too readily: “I am in favour of transparency in some cases. But often if you make things transparent you are reducing the need for trust.”

Also misguided is when organisations describe trust as a value or an asset – something the board and organisation in some way owns and controls – said Botsman. "I'm not saying trust can never be these things. But it never will be unless we think of trust as a human feeling; a continuous process that happens between people," she said.

There are four parts to trust, explained Botsman. These are: competency, reliability, integrity, and benevolence. She added that integrity can be the most difficult part of building trust in an organisation.

“In a culture that is so driven by efficiency and growth there is a risk of losing our integrity. Integrity is about an alignment of intentions: do your intentions align with mine? In the past I’ve hired people who are extremely reliable, but it doesn’t work out over time because their integrity doesn’t align with my team’s.

“This is why HR plays a critical role," Botsman concluded. “This is about the everyday interactions you make to improve integrity. To give people the tools to consider if a product, person, or piece of information can be trusted. Trust is our most precious and fragile asset.”