Change and Trust

Trust in ourselves and others is key to making social transformations. Building and losing trust is the difference between change and inertia.

I’m not a regular reader of the Huffington Post so I was surprised to find myself engrossed in a recent article on the site that dealt with Sun Chips (the snack), their innovative compostable bag (that was once killed and is now revived), people’s reaction to noise, climate change, and eco-anxiety at the same time. It’s a bit of an odd combination.

What really captured my attention was the discussion on the greater issue of how people deal with big problems like climate change — and specifically this quote from environmental psychologist Katherine Arbuthnott.

For eco-anxiety, people are doubting their own ability to manage it… We don’t trust ourselves, we don’t trust our communities or worlds to be dealing with it.

Dr. Katherine Arbuthnott, University of Regina (Huffington Post)

What Arbuthnott hits on the ability to make change because of others.

Change-making language is most often framed in terms closest to an individual actor using concepts like willpower, motivation, habits, and intentions. On matters of social complexity and scope, these sometimes powerful forces are rendered mute…or at least limited.

If we don’t trust ourselves we can take actions to improve that by examining our values and beliefs, seeking help, building our knowledge base, or enhancing our skills. What if we don’t trust that others are doing the same?


Like many things in this world trust is often taken for granted until we realize we don’t have it. We trust things to work, for people to do what they say (and say what they mean), that others share positive intentions, and that things will behave as we expect them to. These represent the four components of trust: benevolence, integrity, competence and predictability.

Our media landscape (including social media) amplified by our connective technologies has led us to question many of these qualities. ‘Fake news‘ amplified by the accessible means to create and spread social deception coupled with incorrect or incomplete information (or misleading imagery) is one reason we don’t trust like we used to. We see the negative and often miss the positive.

The formation of national health care programs (like the NHS in the UK), The Marshall Plan, or the forming of the European Union in the 20th century represent examples of large scale social action based on trust. We no longer have the same trust that large groups of people will come together to create initiatives for social and global benefit in the 21st century.

Strangely, it may come back to the power of thinking small to achieve big.

The Big Power of Small

One of the most useful lessons in protecting your mental well-being is to spend little energy worrying about the things you do have control over heeding the words of the Serenity Prayer :

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity Prayer by  Reinhold Niebuhr

It’s the last part — the wisdom to know the difference — that can trip us up and is part of trust. If I don’t believe that others are contributing or don’t trust that they have the qualities of benevolence, integrity, and competence or will do things predictability, what can I do?

One of the first is to find solvable problems. Even within problems that have great wickedness there are things that have a linearity that allows us to take action and solve. Designer Austin Kleon’s take on tackling his son’s Rubik’s Cube provides insight into why having solvable problems we can tackle with our hands is so satisfying.

Simple counts, count. Breaking down a large problem into something that you can measurably contribute to can demonstrate progress (even if it’s small), can show that work is being done and help you build trust in yourself. Small simple measures like ‘checks on a checklist‘ can show progress and provide our brains with a supportive hit of dopamine when we do this. When shared with others, it can also help build trust from them.

The smallest viable audience or minimum viable product design philosophy can help you out. Think: what is the smallest thing I can do to make a difference? What the smallest number of people who need to engage with me to build trust? Do that.

A related way to approach this comes from the world of bees. Marianne Gee has studied and kept bees for many years and notes that the contributions of any single bee to the community’s honey pool are nearly unmeasurable, yet it is the only the way that it gets done. Think like a bee.

Document it all even for the most banal changes. Because so many small changes really are hard to see (like a bee’s contribution to honey) it’s easy to miss the transformation that comes over time. For organizations, I recommend using the Living History approach to documenting the journey of your innovation and development. Journals, progress reviews, or simply setting regular time to stop and reflect can serve an enormous boost.

The power of marginal gains as noted below is another reason to focus on things you can do today. Done every day — or consistently (part of trust-building!) — a small, nearly insignificant change today can make an enormous difference over time.

The power of one percent change

Finally, take your actions out of the game. Daily recycling might not seem like much: but imagine if you considered the pile of plastics that would have gone to the landfill without your effort? Consider what would happen if you removed yourself from the activities? What partnerships wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t there to facilitate them? What services wouldn’t exist? This is what we refer to as the It’s a Wonderful Life technique – imagine change without you in the mix to see what it is that you do bring.

These small things can all help you make progress, build trust, and help you focus on what you are doing. If you measure and document what you do that also serves as evidence for you and others that can help build trust and encourage others. It’s about doing what you can do for yourself…and the world.

Note: If designing an evaluation approach to document your changes is something you’re interested, contact me. Combined with a design strategy to set yourself up for many small, persistent, consistent actions you may find yourself making much more than marginal gains.

Photo by Yulia Khlebnikova on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Change and Trust”

  1. Hi Cameron

    Really interesting read. I am going to add to my trust resources. It reinforces Stephen Covey’s waves of trust with the first wave being self trust and then relationship trust. I love the idea of small steps and 1% improvements because they are less risky and if we go off track (which we often do), we can get back on track quickly and continue the incremental upswing. One of my favourite sayings is nothing builds momentum like momentum and this reinforces that thought. Thanks for this blog, I really appreciated the way you have weaved so many concepts together.

    Liz Weaver

    1. Thank you as always for the kind words and feedback, Liz. I really appreciate the insight and reflection on what I wrote. This is a bit of a precursor to our talk in May and builds on that idea of doing what we can with what we have and recognizing those small, incremental wins as we try and tackle those bigger problems. You are absolutely right about setting ourselves up to learn from those efforts when we go off track.

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