Saturday, May 2, 2015

196. Trust under stress

Under stress, what happens to trust? Does it collapse or does it become stronger?

Earlier in this blog, I argued that underlying trust and distrust there are two frames of  mind: a self-interested frame, guarding one’s resources, and a solidarity frame as a basis for the give and take of trust. It seems that in human evolution we have developed instincts for both.

Under threat of survival, then, one might expect that the defensive frame of guarding one’s resources wins out over the solidarity frame, making trust fragile.

On the other hand, especially under stress, in a crisis, people may need each other more, and will simply have to make trust work.

When the one, and when the other? It depends on whether there is a zero-sum game, with the gain of the one occurring at the cost of loss to the other, or a positive-sum game where collaboration yields gain for both.

For example, when a firm is in crisis and needs to lay off employees, rivalry may arise between them as to who will stay and who will go. Collegial solidarity and give and take corrode.

Unless it is precisely collaboration and give and take that may overcome the crisis.

But is this, the occurrence of positive or zero sum, always a given, something external, or is it also, to some extent at least, something made, something one develops?

Crises increase uncertainty, things are happening out of the ordinary. Existing protocols no longer work. The basis for monitoring and judging the actions of others falls away. Outcomes are unpredictable, and one needs to focus on the quality of process rather than on the desirability of outcomes. One has to improvise and explore actions that fit the specific, unknown situation. It helps when earlier one has developed sensitivity to context.

Trust also requires empathy, the ability to imagine oneself in the shoes of the other, and that also requires sensitivity to context, to the specific conditions that affect the position, the perspective of the other.

Empathy, plus a sense of quality of process, and sensitivity to context, develop in the development of the art of trust.

Trust is not a scarce resource that is depleted in its use. It may increase, deepen, become more robust in its use. The joint solution of problems on the basis of trust deepens trust.

By accepting the risk of collaboration, in trust as a leap of faith, with the ability and wisdom to deal with it, one develops positive sum games in profiting from each other’s differences, in the novel combinations of thought and practice that yield innovation and the joy of creation. And it yields the skill and competence to better deal with the uncertainties of crises.

So, the advantage of a culture, habit, and skill of cooperation, in give and take, empathy and the skill of trust, is not only valuable in itself, in developing inventive novel combinations, but also creates robustness under crisis, in resisting the collapse of trust, and possibly even deepening it.