The Critical Role of Trust in Society


Trust is a fundamental foundation of human relationships. Trust enriches and strengthens the relationships people can have, while the lack of trust greatly reduces and limits their interactions. This is true of all kinds of human relationships.

Almost every business transaction between a customer and a vendor involves an element of trust. There are laws and agencies that safeguard the rights of the parties involved in a transaction, but still an element of trust underlines the transaction. For instance, a buyer who is willing to pay in advance for goods using their credit card has confidence that the system can protect his rights should the seller fail to deliver what he paid for. But being able to resort to authorities and legal processes to claim back any financial losses is not the outcome that the buyer is looking for but a remedial action for a development that he would not want to have to resort to. The outcome that the buyer sets out to achieve is to receive the goods or service he paid for. In the act of buying, therefore, the buyer invests an element of trust in the seller that they will deliver the service or goods and that he would not need to resort to a third party to recover any losses.

Furthermore, there are certain interactions that are extremely difficult to cover with a contract or monitor effectively, so they rely to a great extent on trust. One example is the patient’s relationship with their doctor. Another is the teacher and student relationship. The 18th century philosopher Adam Smith emphasized the essential role of trust in the development of economy.

Trust is critical to gain loyalty. A business cannot develop loyal customers until they start seeing it as trustworthy. Furthermore, years of loyalty can easily disappear once trust is breached. Trust is a universal human value that is equally critical in all aspects of life and in every culture.

Many crises that we see in the world today are the result of mistrust. The credit crunch is one obvious example. People lost trust in the banking system, because it developed unethical behaviors and breached the trust-based contract people have with it. One can hardly read a newspaper without coming across a story that reminds him of the untrustworthiness of banks. The only reason that banks still exist and people continue to use them is that people have no choice. Instead of being institutions that have real competitors, the market economy, which is based on competition, has ironically become dependent on banks and the banking system. Even governments stand completely incapable of dealing with this serious problem. Over five years after the credit crunch, and the most powerful politicians in the world can only appeal to banks to better regulate themselves.

The loss of trust can have serious consequences on the participation of people in the political process in democratic countries. Politicians, who rely on the trust of people, have lost the trust of voters who do not see them anymore as genuine representatives of their interests and needs. In Western democracies, politicians are often seen as being driven by self-interest, complicit with big corporates and other powerful individuals and institutions at the cost of the ordinary people and their constituents, and more focused on abusing politics than using it as a means for positive change. People have become increasingly disillusioned with politicians, with the political system losing credibility. This is expressing itself in apathy that is seen in the lack of interest in the political process, including the process of election, local or general.

Leadership is another human relationship in which trust is critical. Any form of leadership can exist and operate only if people have trust in the leader. The success of politicians, for instance, as leaders depends on the level of trust that voters have in them. In an article titled George Galloway’s Victory and the Out-of-touch Political Establishment, I attributed Galloway’s stunning win of the Bradford West election partly to the trust that voters have in him:

He is trusted and believed by voters. When Galloway speaks about what he believes, voters believe him. In an ideal world, this is a basic requirement of being a politician. In the real world, this is a unique quality that our politicians do not even dream of having.

Even a business leader, at any level, cannot achieve complete success without the trust of his/her staff. Many managers think that being popular with staff is one of the most important qualities that are needed to succeed. This is naïve and flawed thinking. It mistakes seeking the approval of staff for business leadership and man management. Being a business leader requires making difficult decisions which, by definition, can be unpopular. The duty and responsibility of the business leader is not to make decisions that are popular but ones that represent the business needs. A true business leader may not be popular but he would be seen as a true steward of the business and protector of its interests. As a business leader, he is trustworthy. This trust would be lost if the decisions of the leader were driven by anything other than the interest of the business.

Similarly, managing staff is about helping them to develop skills and behaviors that the business needs. As acquiring these competencies means developing new qualities and changing deep-seated habits, this process of learning and change can be painful and uncomfortable. Genuine learners who believe in the need to develop those skills and behaviours would understand and accept this process and tolerate the pain of learning and change. They succeed and celebrate success. Those who resist learning and change fail and feel unhappy. What makes a people manager trustworthy is not his popularity or the lack of it, but the fact that he helps staff to develop the competencies that reflect the business values and needs.

A business leader and manager earns the trust of staff by embodying the values of the business, being a role model, and setting an example that they aspire to follow. Of course, being true to the values of the business would not alone make a leader and manager successful.Trustworthiness is an essential requirements but it is not sufficient. A trustworthy person who lacks critical competencies that his job needs would not succeed.

Trustworthiness is also a fundamental requirement for spiritual leadership. A person can be a religious leader only when people trust him, so they accept his wisdom and follow him. Being trustworthy here means to truly believe in what one teaches and to practice what he preaches. Only by being trusted the person can be accepted as a spiritual leader and be an influential one.

One great quality that helped Prophet Muhammad in calling people to Islam is his trustworthiness. Even before the Qur’an was communicated to him he was known as “al-Ṣādiq al-Amīn,” or the “the truthful and trustworthy one.” These qualities did not stop people from rejecting his message, but they convinced some to believe him and become the first believers.

Earning the trust of people and being able to trust them is critical to have rich and successful relationships. Of course, misplaced trust can backfire and cause a lot of damage. This is why trust must be invested carefully and wisely. On the other hand, once trust is lost, it may be extremely difficult to earn it again.

Copyright © 2013 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved.


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