Next week I’m taking part in a panel discussion about the role of trust in communities at the Community Roundtable’s annual CRConnect event. Ahead of that I wanted to share a few reflections about trust.
Trust and vulnerability come hand in hand
Trust is ultimately about a willingness to make our vulnerability visible to another – and to believe that they won’t take that show of vulnerability and abuse it to hurt us. Vulnerability can take many forms from revealing a secret fear to a friend, to sharing key insights with a collaborator or admitting to a supervisor that we need more support.
The moment at which we take the plunge and share our vulnerability is always transitional – the next steps for the relationship hang in the balance until we receive a response from the person we’re sharing with. If our revelation is met with reassurance, care, and appropriate respect then we’re likely to share again and the relationship will continue to develop. Break the boundaries of the tentative formation of a safe space and the relationship may be damaged temporarily or permanently, depending on the scale of the breach.
Trust is built by increments – and setting of boundaries
Typically, we build trust in small steps – sharing increasingly important details only once we’ve tested that it is safe to do so. This incremental enlarging of our boundaries to include those that we now trust seems to occur at different rates for different people. Some of us trust a little more readily and our boundaries expand a little more easily, while others of us may require a little longer to adjust to the new intimacies of each stage.
Sometimes this process can feel like it’s fast-tracked e.g. during an intense group experience where the participants are spending a lot of time together and where they are perceived to be equally vulnerable. I’ve seen this occur at week-long conferences where attendees are spending long days and sociable evenings together, as well as in more reflective settings such as meditation retreats where facilitation and a setting of norms is more explicit.
Codes of conduct – both offline and on – are increasingly recognized as important in the trust-building process, especially where there an existing power imbalance or a likely sharing of sensitive information/feelings that could be abused and result in a power imbalance. Just as we police and adjust our boundaries as individuals when it comes to abuses of trust, so we need to do so on a group-level when individuals within a community break the expected norms.
Over-sharing doesn’t build trust
While sharing an intensive experience together can result in trust being built over a relatively short time period, over-sharing tends not to fast-track the development of trust. This is because it’s not based on a genuine relationship between individuals, but is about one person sharing too much information without reflection about whether others are willing or able to receive it.
What about trust within communities?
It’s unlikely in an online community that I know everyone else in the group personally. This can have two broad effects – either I decide to limit how much trust I have in the group overall and share less accordingly (or take my more personal conversations offline/into private chats), or I use my positive interactions with a small number of members plus the overall community norms that I observe as indicators for the group as a whole and decide to trust everyone.
One role of the community manager is to facilitate the building of trust via highlighting the positive, trustworthy behaviours and showing that any damaging behaviours are appropriately dealt with.
Trust leads to a sense of belonging
One of the wonderfully positive effects of sharing vulnerability and the resulting trust is we feel as though we are seen and accepted by another – and this builds a powerful sense of belonging.
Another way of phrasing this in terms of communities is that belonging is when you feel comfortable in a group and the other members value your presence. Contrast this to “fitting in” where you may want to be part of a community but the other members don’t really care about who you are.
The social capital spread across the network when a sense of belonging is created can propel many projects into an energized, productive state where members will often willingly contribute more than the minimum expected.
Trust leads to emotional and intellectual shortcuts
As well as generating a sense of belonging which is typically good for ensuring that community members repeatedly show up for events and contribute in some way, trust also allows us to make emotional and intellectual shortcuts.
If I trust you then I’m more and more likely to share information with you in an interaction that ultimately saves time because I’m no longer taking the slow steps that I took initially to prove that this is a safe interaction. Likewise, if you recommend that I connect with someone that you know then I may trust them somewhat more than a complete stranger because of your recommendation.
Similarly, with a trusted brand such as a news source, we save time fact-checking by trusting that the organization has already done that work for us. We won’t look stupid sharing their information because we trust that it’s accurate.
A vital currency for interactions at scale
In short, trust becomes a vital currency for interactions at scale. Whether that’s trusting a team member to delegate to them, or trusting a recommendation to save time in doing our own research, or trusting our colleagues so that we can make mistakes together and recover from them quickly – trust is a vital component to healthy, productive group interactions.
What are your experiences with trust on an individual and community level? Are there any situations in which trust isn’t important? How do you remedy situations in which trust has been broken?