I’ve written a few times about the crucial role trust plays in supporting both collaboration and innovation in the workplace. We need to have faith that sharing our knowledge will benefit us, for instance, whilst we are also much more likely to collaborate with those we regard as trustworthy.
Of course, I’m sure we can all recount times when Machiavellian colleagues prospered, so how close does reality match theory regarding trust? That was the question posed by a recent study into the role trust plays in group dynamics.
Trust and Group Dynamics
The study looks at how our propensity to trust our peers influences the dynamics of the group. If some of us are trusting, whilst others are not, how does this influence the workings of the group?
The short answer is nothing particularly useful or productive. Whilst thought diversity is something many organizations strive for, it seems when it comes to trust, uniformity is key – whether that’s all trusting people, or all untrusting.
Why Trust Diversity is Dangerous
So why is such diversity dangerous? Well, the paper suggests that in terms of social cohesion, diversity can be rather perilous.
“The predominant view of research on diversity is that it can be either good or bad but, in fact, in many cases it is both,” the authors say. “Diversity is good because it gives you a different perspective, but it is bad because it makes it hard to work with each other because of the lack of social cohesion. Indeed, the power of the social cohesion problem seems to overwhelm the upside possibilities of sharing perspectives or having different perspectives on the same problem. Usually you end up with some trade-of both ways but in this case we found a situation where it actually really is just mostly on one side.”
What’s more, as mistrust seeps into a group, it’s incredibly hard to get things back on a virtuous path as conflict and poor performance spirals out of control.
On a more positive note, the same can happen in reverse, with trusting environments spiraling in a positive way.
The sad thing is that research suggests that trust is not something that corporate high flyers tend to have a great deal of. The politics of organizational life can often lead to those who get promoted being rather low on trust.
“Because organisations are political and you have to tell people bad news and be competitive, they tend not to be led by people who are overly trusting,” the authors say.
In other words, despite the rhetoric around collaboration and innovation, many of our organizations are actively pushing out the kind of people who help to deliver such environments.
What’s more, this can become self-perpetuating, as people who lack trust themselves are likely to be suspicious of those who are high on trust, therefore it becomes a vicious circle.
So what can you do about it? The authors suggest that the best course of action is to try and develop a culture whereby misunderstandings are ok and don’t automatically lead to a breakdown of trust.
Perhaps rather easier said than done.