​What is Trust and How Can Leaders Build it? / Blog

​What is Trust and How Can Leaders Build it? primary image

Christian Nattiel, Graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Rhodes Scholar and MSc candidate in Education (Higher Education) at Linacre College, Oxford, offers some reflections on a recent lecture by Prof. Tom Simpson, hosted by the Oxford Character Project and the Engaging the Humanities programme at the Saïd Business School.

In his lecture titled, “What is trust and how can leaders build it?” Associate Professor Tom Simpson provided an accessible means for leaders to contemplate how they set the conditions for trust to exist within their organization. Professor Simpson articulated these means by first elucidating the requirements for trust to exist between two individuals, and then explaining how these requirements either contribute to or detract from a baseline level of trust within society. For this reflection, I will first discuss what I took away from the lecture and then I will share what I find myself seeking to learn now.

As the lecture progressed, it became clear to me that my subconscious understanding of how I choose to trust people was inaccurate, or at best incomplete. Prima facie, I thought that my decision to trust another person was primarily based on my perception of their character. The truth is that the probability of a person to presume that another person is trustworthy is mostly a function of the economic situation in which they live. To illustrate, Professor Simpson introduced social science research to support the claim that people in poorer areas are less likely to trust the people around them than in affluent areas. It follows then, that our decision to trust others is not only affected by the actual traits of the person in question, but also by our socioeconomic background. This phenomenon is an uncomfortable truth because it is incompatible with the egalitarian ideals shared by many. However, it is not surprising. It is a solemn reminder that people in underserved communities live in materially different social realities than those of us who are privileged enough to be at Oxford. Consequently, this reinforces the need for leaders to do our due diligence in learning the narratives of the peoples different than us so that we can make competent decisions for our increasingly globalized communities.

On a different note, Professor Simpson’s examination of altruistic punishment’s relationship with trust naturally turned my attention to how punishments affect trust in U.S. Army organizations. U.S. Army Officers maintain “good order and discipline” in their formations through a system of rewards and punishments, just like leaders of other organizations. What makes us unique, however, is our extensive system of non-judicial punishments that we use to ensure that our Soldiers are behaving in ways that are consistent with our Army Values. Although this system of punishments is extensive, this system is organized so that punishments are adjudicated at the discretion of commanders. For the accused, this subjectivity is beneficial for the consideration of their extenuating and mitigating circumstances. However, when there is a perception that one person was given a harsher punishment than another after having committed the same offense, this subjectivity can sometimes work against a commander’s reputation for fairness amongst the non-accused. In turn, the question becomes: what methods of non-judicial punishment are most compatible with engendering a climate of trust within a unit? Punishments too harsh can cause subordinates to question whether their leader has their best interest in mind, while punishments too lenient can lead subordinates to question their leader’s resolve. Regardless of the resolution, the resolution to this dilemma will prove useful to any leader who takes on stewardship as one of their duties.

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