Thursday, April 18, 2013

Organizational Distrust

In my last post I suggested that trust and distrust are both subject to Aristotelian contextual analysis based on person, time, place, and degree. Let's take a look at how distrust works in the context of organizations.

First, let's recall that organizations are cooperative, teleological entities that pursue specific ends via specific means. Ethical organizations pursue "moral ends" via "moral means."  Organizations are  comprised of individual leaders and individual followers. Leaders may (or may not) trust followers, and followers may (or may not) trust leaders. In a fair world, trustworthiness is based on objective "track records." Given that followers are naturally predisposed to trust leaders, in the absence of  "track records," followers tend to trust leaders. Since leadership trust is the default position, at least initially, followers tend to give leaders the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes too much benefit!

There's a difference in trust as manifest in small and large organizations. In small organizations, leaders and followers tend to trust each other because they can personally monitor each other's track records. However, monitoring the behavior of leaders and followers in large organizations is, by its very nature, is impersonal and requires institutionalized systems. Organizations based on distrust involve the codification of formalized rules that are monitored and enforced by a system of surveilance. Most organizations today have evolved increasingly efficient institutions and surveillance technologies that target, primarily, the behavior of followers. Leaders are usually in charge of monitoring and enforcement,  and therefore their own behavior is not easily monitored. (Enron!) In fact, leaders often use their positions of power to hide or distort their track records. Ironically, followers are often expected to trust leaders, despite the fact that those leaders do not trust their followers.

In recent years, both large and small organizations have adopted strategies based on distrust that also incorporate the use of "carrots," or rewards for cooperative behavior and/or "sticks," or punishments for uncooperative behavior, usually in the form of threats of punishment such as seizure of property (fines) or expulsion from the organization (fired. It's also true that when leaders and followers are not trusted, and subjected to increasingly intrusive monitoring and enforcement they tend be be less cooperative and engage in less trustworthy behavior, which leads to increasingly more intrusive surveillance systems of monitoring and enforcement and larger sticks and tastier carrots. But why do we respond negatively to distrust? I don't know about you all, but I generally do not respond positively to either personal or institutionalized distrust. Leaders get a lot more cooperation out of me by trusting me to do the right thing. On the other hand, there are contexts where we all have lousy track records. My wife rightfully does not trust me to take care of our finances. In fact, I don't trust myself in that context. Thus, sometimes the track records of leaders and/or followers rightly, justify distrust and monitoring and enforcement. However, deserved distrust might also warrant expulsion from the organization and being replaced by more trustworthy leaders or followers. Nevertheless, in our society based on distrust we have all been conditioned to trust organizations that have the most intrusive systems of monitoring and enforcement. Indeed, today, the idea that leaders ought to trust followers and that followers ought to trust leaders seems quaint, as the global default position continues to gravitate toward distrust and surveillance. Today, most of us harbor unprecedented distrust of both political leaders and business leaders; and political and business leaders rarely trust followers.  Is you e-mail and Facebook account being monitored? Is there a drone circling your house right now?

The most common form of institutionalized distrust is whistle-blowing, where leaders and followers are actively encouraged (with carrots and sticks) to "blow the whistle" on each other for legal and/or moral wrong-doing. I'll cover that in my next blog.          

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


I'm not much of a proponent of virtue-based ethics, but lately I've been warming up to it it...One virtue I've been thinking about is "Trust."

First, let's agree that we use the word in a bewildering variety of contexts. We say that we "trust" or "distrust" both living and non-living entities. I "trust" my wife, my dogs, and the brakes on my Toyota. I would "distrust" my wife to perform brain surgery. I certainly wouldn't "trust" my dogs to drive my Toyota. We also "trust" or "distrust" organizations, leaders, and or followers. For now, let's focus on individual and organizational trust.

In virtue ethics, I'm a big fan of Aristotle's emphasis on context. He certainly would NOT argue that it is virtuous to completely trust all persons, leaders, followers, or organizations, at all times, in all places. To be trusted one must be ... or trustworthy. Let's break this down a bit. Aristotle thought that trust (and distrust) are virtues, and that virtuous behavior is habitual. Therefore, the decision of whether to trust a person or organization is contingent upon access to information about habitual behavior. If John Doe has a history of drinking all of your most expensive beer when you're not home, then you probably wouldn't want to leave an unguarded case of Heineken in your refrigerator. You might, however, trust that John will not steal your wife, Toyota, or your dogs. Hence, trust really is contextual. Moreover, if you habitually trust persons or organizations that, obviously, are untrustworthy, you are not virtuous. You're a "sucker." If you habitually "distrust" persons or organizations that are demonstrably trustworthy you are not virtuous either. You are a "cynic." In short, Aristotelian virtue requires that we trust the right person, at the right time, in the right place, to the right degree. We must be discerning.

As a general rule we trust family and friends, at least in part, because we know their "track record." On the other hand, we generally, distrust "strangers;" that is persons and organizations whose track record is unknown. However, if we're virtuous we naturally seek out "information" that might indicate trustworthiness or untrustworthiness.  Of course, that leaves us open to the criticism that we're biased or discriminatory; especially when we distrust classes of strangers based on limited information. So here is the basic question! When we are deciding whether to trust or distrust strangers, what should be the default position? Should we trust strangers until we possess reliable information that warrants distrust; or should we distrust strangers until we possess reliable information that warrants trust? Unfortunately, some individuals and organizations are opportunistic, and are highly skilled at disguising their untrustworthiness. Hence, many positions of trust are invaded by untrustworthy opportunists. At least in recent years, politicians have probably been the most opportunistic. Here, the basic problem is that politicians have almost unlimited ability to disguise their opportunism by manipulating the machinery of government to their advantage. Transparency, therefore, is a necessary condition for guarding against opportunism. But transparency undermines opportunism, and therefore persons and organizations often manipulate language to make it difficult for the rest of us to decode their track record. Hence, the rise of "private languages," that serve to undermine our ability to know who to trust. Most professions that serve as "agents" for the rest of us, employ private languages: lawyers, priests, ministers, physicians, politicians, used car salesmen, insurance brokers etc. I call it "private language fraud."

I've been rightfully identified as a cynic; that is, I am not readily predisposed to blindly trust strangers, especially those that expect me to trust them to decode a private language. In fact, I always deploy my philosophical skills to "deconstruct" those private languages on my own, or at least find someone that I trust to do it for me. The most conspicuous example of private language fraud on earth is the U.S. tax code. Until that mess is translated into "public language" that the rest of us can understand, I'll continue to distrust politicians.