Thursday, January 3, 2013


72. Uncertainty and openness

Trust pricks up its ears when expectations are disappointed. What is going on? The problem is that when expectations are disappointed, the cause is often ambiguous. What went wrong? Was there a misunderstanding in expectations? Was there an accident that was none on the trustee’s fault and prevented him/her from acting as expected? Was his/her competence less than thought? Did he/she not pay attention; was there lack of commitment? Or was he/she deliberately taking opportunistic advantage at the expense of the trustor? This is the causal ambiguity of trust. Often one cannot establish what cause is at work, for lack of information or ability to interpret what happens. Especially the opportunist will claim a mishap for an excuse.

When the trustor is under pressure or lacks self-confidence or is inclined to distrust he/she may jump to the worst conclusion, that of opportunism. If the trustee is in fact reliable, he should therefore when making a mistake or incurring an accident immediately report it, explain what happened, announce his commitment to immediately try to mitigate the problem, and promise that after the crisis he/she will engage in deliberation about how such problems may be prevented in the future. That is trustworthy conduct. In other words, the problem of causal ambiguity yields the need for openness about failures. Secrecy does not pay. The trustor will conclude that the trustee acted opportunistically, because if not, why didn’t he/she come clean earlier, and help to solve the problem?

Take the bankers. Many people say that the bankers should have apologized for the financial crisis. But such apology alone is cheap. One should add what I just indicated: clarification of the causes, attempts to redress the problem, and commitment and deliberation for future prevention. Since the bankers did not do any of that all trust in them was destroyed. The conclusion was that they acted deliberately and opportunistically. 

The reverse side of this coin is that when something goes wrong the trustor should not jump to the conclusion that the trustee is opportunistic, but should extend the benefit of the doubt to the trustee and let him/her explain. Here empathy also comes in: the trustor should put him/herself in the shoes of the trustee, to try and understand what was going on.

There are further arguments for openness for the sake of trust. Not only should the trustee be open about his/her failures, the trustor should also be open to the trustee about his fears concerning the relationship. That gives the trustee the opportunity to try and reduce the risk involved. Secrecy robs the partner of opportunities to help. Good negotiation is not seeking to yield as little information and advantage as possible, as instinct may dictate, but to seek out problems on the part of the partner that carry great weight for him/her, and see if one can prevent or mitigate the problems at comparatively low cost. If the partner does the same, then in this give and take both partners will flourish.