Trust and Networks

Trust makes networks work. When trust is high among members of a network, there’s a wonderful cohesiveness and capacity to get work done. When trust is low and relationships are plagued by suspicion, networks collapse into brittle organizational structures that rarely offset their operational costs in real world outcomes.

Trust builds living networks that are highly resilient, flexible and efficient. People who trust each other more easily forgive each other for the bumps that inevitably arise from working together. That’s network resilience. When people trust each other, it’s easier to respond to change in a smart, coordinated way. That’s network flexibility. Trust also reduces red tape, which lowers the cost of collaboration. That’s network efficiency.

Defining a network:

If you want to understand why trust is so important to the vibrancy of a network, it helps to have a working definition of networks. I suggest the following:

“Networks  are voluntary connections between autonomous peers.”

Let’s break this definition down; first, autonomy. You can think of this important idea in terms of self determination. Organizations are ‘autonomous’ when they have final say over their own future. People are ‘autonomous’ when they have final say over their lives. I might be autonomous at home but not at work, by the way, just as I’m free to decide who I vote for in an elections or what movie to watch this weekend but not to decide whether to merge my organization with another one. That latter type of decision is checked by an organizational reporting structure, so I’m not acting autonomously when I make it. Similarly, a division of a corporation isn’t autonomous because final say on important matters sits outside, in the parent corporation.

What does this have to do with networks? Hang on, we’re getting there – but first a word about relationships that are voluntary. As an employee, the connection I have with my organization is not voluntary – it’s part of an institutional hierarchy just like the corporate division that reports to its parent. These relationships are power relationships – institutional power relationships, to be specific. They’re not voluntary, and they’re usually backed up by the force of law through things like employment contracts and corporate bylaws.

Networks are an alternative organizational structure to hierarchies. You join them voluntarily and they connect you, not to a reporting structure, but to peers. Networks are the connections that allow peers to work together. They do this by helping peers voluntarily shed a little bit of their autonomy – just enough to be able to get work done with others.

Relationship-StatusTo illustrate, let’s talk about a partnership, a simple form of network that connects just two entities. True partnerships are between equals. When two people decide to marry or move in together, the resulting partnership is voluntary and between equals. When two firms decide the advantages of ongoing collaboration outweigh the costs of coordination, the resulting partnership is voluntary and between peers. In true partnerships, the relationship between partners is definitely not a reporting relationship where one controls the other. It’s much more complicated and nuanced than that – just ask anyone whose been married or in a significant relationship for any real length of time. The same is true for partnerships between two independent companies. It’s also important to note that if a third party were to force the collaboration, the connection between ‘partners’ wouldn’t be voluntary and they wouldn’t really be acting autonomously. In networks, there is no external controlling force.

Relationship is the Net in Network

It takes a lot of work to make partnerships work. Clear communication is key – and you need to do a lot of it to maintain healthy relationships. One of the key things about networks – even simple ones like partnerships – is that it’s not just about the partners, but about the relationship between them. In network theory, this is illustrated by a line connecting the dots (or “nodes”) in the network graph. That line is the connection, or relationship, between partners. The relationship is the “net” that supports “work” in the network. Invest in that relationship and you get work. Don’t invest in it, and your ability to coordinate work eventually deteriorates. This is one of those important dynamics I touch on a lot in my various writings: the paradox of task and relationship.

In networks, authority is distributed and agreed to voluntarily. There is no centralized power with final say over what does and doe not happen or with the power to enforce compliance by network members. Power makes relationships work within a hierarchy. I do what you say, ultimately, because I report to you. In a network, we’re both peers. I don’t report to you and you don’t report to me. So how the heck do we get anything done?

Trust and Networks: In Trust We Trust

Trust-Dad-300x300Trust is the lubricant that supports relationships and makes a network work. When you and I invest in our relationship, a lot of good things happen; one of the most important is that we build trust. Trust acts as a lubricant to reduce friction in our relationship and make our work flow more easily. When I trust you, it makes it easier for me to deal with the increased risk that comes from lowering my guard. When I trust you, I open myself so that it’s easier for us to collaborate. I tell you what I’m really thinking, set aside formality and shift my focus from figuring out your intentions to actually getting work done together. Trust helps organizations connect in an analogous way. Organizations that trust each other can safely set aside formal agreements and rigid processes and replace them lighter weight ways of working together. They make it easier for their employees to coordinate with partner employees. In short, organizations that trust one another lower their barriers and shed a little piece of their autonomy in order to work more effectively with each other.

Our distrust is very expensive. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Strange as it might seem, nature is full of examples of networks of trusted autonomous actors, working collaboratively with one another. Bees, for example, work with flowers. Bees get pollen from the collaboration and flowers get fertilized. Bees and flowers are independent, autonomous agents. No one forces them to work this way with each other, but they do so anyway out of mutual self interest. To say that flowers trust bees sounds almost as far-fetched as saying that bees trust flowers, but if you look at it with a certain perspective, they actually do.

Vulnerability is a key aspect of trust. When the bee relies on a flower for its supply of pollen, it becomes vulnerable. Continuing to remain open to collaborating in the face of this vulnerability requires trust – even if doesn’t look like the kind of trust that we humans normally understand. The same thing is true for a partnership between two firms, when one supplies a critical component to the other’s manufacturing process, for example. In this sense, trust is remaining open in the face of vulnerability.


Bees trust flowers to pollinate them despite the vulnerability this entails, thanks to millions of years of evolutionary programming. Human collaborative networks don’t usually have that luxury. For us, trust must be consciously cultivated. Trust is earned, not bestowed or forced. You don’t trust me just because I tell you to. I have to earn your trust through the integrity of my actions over time; by doing what I say I will do and by ensuring my actions help, and do not harm you.

While trust isn’t earned or forced, respect is one of those things that can be mandated. Respect for authority is one type of respect that is absolutely mandated in hierarchical organizations. Buck the chain of command in a large organization and you put your career at risk; do it in the military and you’re asking for a court martial. Respect for authority is an example of a one-way flow of respect; you respect me because I’m your commanding officer or boss. There are other examples of one-way flows of respect; we might, for example, respect someone for their intellect, their creativity, their athletic ability, or their money. These are all valid forms of respect that are vital to society, but they’re not the kind of respect that ensures the health of a network.

Mutual respect is the bilateral flow of respect that opens us to new connections in a network. Mutual respect is bilateral; that is to say, it is a two-way flow of respect. It’s not based on what one person has, but on who they are. Networks address people by name – not title. When I respect you as an equal, as a peer, I keep the door open to connecting with you in a way that maximizes the creative potential of our work together. I may still respect the things you have – your wit, your intelligence, your money – but, when mutual respect is enshrined as a core operating principle of the network that connects us, we both operate knowing that how we treat each other doesn’t depend upon the circumstances of our birth or life experiences.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights… – Thomas Jefferson

These are the underlying principles of one of the most marvelous political innovations in history – the founding of the United States of America. I won’t go so far as to say that the USA is a network (though it is interesting to note that ideas like “unalienable rights” and “separation of powers” share many of the notions of autonomy and connection outlined above). What I am saying is that when we enshrine mutual respect as a core principle of the network, we make it easier for new connections to happen. Mutual respect keeps us open to finding talent and character where otherwise we might not. By fostering the potential to connect, mutual respect helps ensure opportunity for all. That is the essence of the American Dream in its finest sense, and it is what makes for a healthy, productive network.

There are many practices that can help strengthen mutual respect in a network. Professional facilitation techniques are an excellent starting place and can be very helpful in catalyzing a culture of mutual respect in a network. It’s also critically important that the network develop a kind of ‘immune response’ to quickly and visibly root out breaches in its accepted principles. This is particularly true when it comes to breaches in respect and trust.

We must safeguard trust to ensure that autonomy is not abused in a network. Participants in a network voluntarily shed a bit of their autonomy in order to collaborate with other independent actors. When they do this, their openness exposes them to potential abuse. This vulnerability is one of the things that makes networks efficient, resilient and flexible. Vulnerability is a hallmark of a living network; it’s what connects autonomous peers in productive relationships.

For networks to thrive, this vulnerability must be honored and protected at all costs. Trust is the way we do this and it’s the secret sauce of living networks.

Summary Points:

  • Trust builds living networks that are highly resilient, flexible and efficient.
  • Networks are voluntary connections between autonomous peers.
  • Networks are the connections that allow peers to work together.
  • In networks, there is no external controlling force.
  • The relationship is the “net” that supports “work” in the network.
  • Trust is the lubricant that supports relationships and makes a network work.
  • “Trust” is remaining open in the face of vulnerability.
  • When we enshrine mutual respect as a core principle of the network, we make it easier for new connections to happen.
  • We must safeguard trust to ensure that autonomy is not abused in a network.


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