A confident relationship with the unknown

My conversation with world-renowned expert on trust and technology Rachel Botsman.

6  Rachel Botsman Horiz

“Trust is the confident relationship with the unknown”: it’s a quote by Rachel Botsman that I often use in my keynotes because I feel that trust is a key subject in these turbulent times. And so I was really over the moon that she agreed to be interviewed for my ‘Never Normal’ newsletter.

Rachel is a world-renowned expert on trust and technology and what they mean for life, work and how we do business. She writes a bi-weekly newsletter, here on LinkedIn, called Rethink with Rachel. And she’s incredibly well placed to help us understand some of the key characteristics of the Never Normal.

According to Rachel, a big reason why so many companies are still struggling with organizing hybrid work in a way that is both engaging and efficient, has to do with how most of them had to rush to figure out the mechanics when Covid-19 hit us. They were really focused on practicalities and amidst all the hassle, forgot to ask some pretty central questions like:

  • What is the role of the office?
  • What does productivity really mean?
  • Where do people work best?

Many made the mistake of tackling hybrid work with technological, pragmatic or functional mechanics, while they should have asked behavioral design questions. But finding answers to the latter can be really confronting for leaders, which may be why they so often revert to a centralized model with traditional command and control dynamics and heavy handed solutions instead.

Designed around the least trustworthy people

Rachel pointed out that many of the hybrid work solutions companies came up with were unfortunately designed around the least trustworthy people in their organization. But surveillance software and employee monitoring software - apparently used by 8 out the 10 of the biggest employees in America - often backfires. It creates a culture where ultimately people are trying to cheat the system. Or it creates a culture where people feel disengaged because they feel micromanaged.

Rachel explained that the number one thing that employees ask for is autonomy and control (meaning that they can control, not that they are controlled), the lack of which is one of the drivers of the Great Resignation. And though command and control solutions may sound like a great idea for pushing productivity and efficiency on the surface, the negative behavioral consequences can be absolutely huge. Reshaping the future of work has to involve thinking about trust dynamics.

Learning to be comfortable with doubt

An important part of the problem is that leaders and managers simply haven't been trained to manage a hybrid force with distributed trust mechanics. Now that the work culture is changing, it feels to them like they are losing power and they just don’t know how to tolerate that ambiguity.

To be able to hold doubt and not jump to conclusions is a sign of high self-trust.

“What I hear from leaders”, explained Rachel, “is “I can't tell my employees to do anything these days” or “I can't even tell them to show up for a meeting”. “When you remove that type of hierarchical form of control and leadership, there are millions of leaders all around the world that just don't have the skills to operate in any other way. I think we’re going to see a decade of real mess before those that studied in this distributed world, enter the workforce and think about leadership and work design in a completely different way.”

“They will be a lot more comfortable with doubt, which is sadly often perceived as a negative force. But to be able to hold doubt and not jump to conclusions is a sign of high self-trust. People who have the capacity to sit with doubts often have a higher tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. And that is exactly the type of leadership we need now.”

Trust as an energy

We also talked about how trust can be a challenge in large organizations - even when they come out with a global purpose - because it is highly cultural and context dependent.

Boards or HR teams are often too western centric, trying to impose their own cultural solutions on global organizations.

“Thinking about trust in your organization as a global problem is completely wrong. What a westerner could perceive as a low trust culture could actually be a very high trust team in another region. I worked in South Korea for nine months and the way people trust their bosses and their organization have very different mechanics from let’s say an office in New York. So it’s a pity to see how boards or HR teams are still so western centric, trying to impose their own cultural solutions on global organizations.”

Rachel also told me that she is hesitant when people claim that we are “experiencing a trust crisis” or that “trust is in the state of decline”. “I talk more about trust as energy,“ she said. “You have to have trust, right? It’s just its form that keeps changing”.

“When you look at the research, trust in government has always been low, while trust in leaders goes up and down like a rollercoaster”, she explained. “And that hasn't really plummeted. What is being completely eroded, though, are many of the systems and mechanics that make government work. So trust in the supreme court, the legal system, law enforcement, voting systems or the military is terribly low. That’s incredibly worrying. Because trust needs these systems around it to make it work.”

Redesigning systems

“So we have to redesign these systems, and their mechanics, because the public has seen through them. They've seen that they don't work. We have to earn back those systems, because in that vacuum, that is when the untrustworthy voices rise up, who understand how to manipulate trust. Donald Trump, for instance, really understands the mechanics of this. My worry is: where is the innovation going to come from around this societal system, financial system, the voting system, the legal system etc. Where is that energy going to come from?”

The good news, according to Rachel, is that there are regions where there is a public engagement as well as a belief in the country and in the future that we’re not seeing in the United States, Australia and England. Estonia, for instance, which is really interesting in terms of political and policy innovation because it’s basically a tabula rasa: they can reinvent themselves because there are no legacy infrastructure and systems. And the Scandi company countries, which have five female leaders, all under the age of 50.

Systems and ideas have some sort of perfect state: they can be too small and inefficient or too big and inefficient.

Personally, I also see that the next generations in several Asian countries still have high hopes for the future. Most likely because they still have the opportunity to advance and make progress, even with all the constraints and difficulties that we are experiencing in today’s society.

The scale of trust mechanisms

When it comes to redesigning trust mechanisms, scale plays a really important part, according to Rachel: “It’s clear that our education systems, health systems or food systems, etc. do not work at the scale that we've designed them to. There's this amazing book called ‘Human Scale’ by Kirkpatrick Sale, which describes that systems and ideas have some sort of perfect state: they can be too small and inefficient or too big and inefficient. There is some kind of equilibrium to find the innovation around that system. It becomes really interesting when you start to investigate what systems should become more localized and decentralized, on the one hand, and what the role of the central function should be.”

On the other hand, Rachel also warns against rejecting everything. “Even when you’re dealing with decentralized platforms and marketplaces, there is still a need for some kind of centralized accountability when things go wrong. So how do you take these institutions - many of them with incredible foundations - and redesign them so that they work for the age that we are living in now. And then, on the other hand, how do you take these new systems and solutions and find new kinds of social safety nets? There's a temptation to reject everything that is broken. But I believe that we also need to look at the elements that actually do work and do keep people safe and then investigate how we can reinvent them to fit the needs of our times.”

Changing the deeper dynamics

A great example according to Rachel is centralized banking versus cryptocurrencies: “Do we need central banks? Yes. Do central banks need to be reinvented? Yes. Is cryptocurrency the answer? Not necessarily. What interests me most about decentralized finance is not actually the currency itself. It's that it is transforming the way that value can be exchanged: paying for things while removing intermediaries. I believe 100% that technology will enable some of these changes, but I also think that the timeframe that we look at is often 10, even 20 years off, before we can see the real systemic and behavioral changes. We often get caught in the surface manifestation of what the innovation looks like at the gate versus the way it's changing deeper dynamics.”

It's really not about the technology. It's about rethinking entire mechanisms and systems.

Another example is banking the 1.7 billion people that are currently still unbanked, which I was so fortunate as to investigate together with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation when my company nexxworks built a tailor-made inspiration program for them. Technology does play a huge role in making that quantum leap. But, also, when you scratch a little deeper, it's really not about the technology. It's about rethinking entire mechanisms and systems.

Rachel added the example of the FICO Score which helps lenders make credit risk decisions about their customers. “FICO scores don’t work with the unbanked because they do not have a credit history. Banks can't use past behavior as a predictor of future behavior. But on the other hand, they have so much data on their mobile phone that banks can use to make an assessment of whether this person is trustworthy. That's exactly the kind of redesign that I'm talking about. It's not that the principle of wanting to make sure that someone will pay back a loan is wrong. It's that the FICO score doesn't work. So you can't apply this sort of institutional mechanism to a problem that requires completely different thinking.”