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Trust and control, a philosophical examination

February 11, 2015 – by Salem Samhoud and Freek Grootenboer

Trust and control are two concepts that have a complicated relationship. On the one hand, regarded by their definition, they appear to be negations of each other: When you trust something or somebody, there is no need for control and, vice versa, when you need to control somebody, there is no trust.

For example, when you trust your partner you don’t feel the need to track his/her behavior. When you feel the need to, for instance,  check his/her text messages, you have to conclude that you don’t trust your loved one.

On the other hand, the principle of control is often used to establish and/or enhance trust between people. One of the most appealing examples of this is, obviously, the system that is designed to exercise our financial system. In aftermath of the great collapse of the consumer’s trust in our financial institutions both the sector itself and involved governments have put a lot of effort in  (and are still working on) revising the financial system of control. The idea, of course, is that with decent control, the financial institutions will refrain from behavior that damages the trust of the consumer. The system of control serves as a means to basically scare people into good, trustworthy behavior: If they do not act in this or that way, there will be serious consequences.

The use of control to gain trust is, although common, also confusing. How can you create trust with a means that, as we have seen by definition, denies trust? In other words: How can you ever completely trust someone that needs a complicated and extensive system of control? Would you trust a person to watch over your kid when that person has an electronic surveillance device? What if the person is supervised by a police officer? I think that it is safe to assume that the more control, the less you will be inclined to trust that person.

Despite this contradiction, one can argue that the use of control is not meant to create a situation of perfect trust. Instead, it is used to establish a base of trust. From this base of trust, you can further work to build a situation where people behave trustworthy; not out of fear but because they see the importance of this. Still, one can argue that the mere presence of control will always be a limitation to real trust. So what should we do? Must we simply accept the fact that, at least in some areas like the financial market,  there will never exist real trust?

From a philosophical point of view, there is a way out of this paradox. The way out consists of designing a system of control that is based on a vision that incorporates a scenario for a way out: A way towards an ideal situation in which the control is no longer necessary. A control system that has incorporated the goal to establish real trust must have an inherent intention to resolve itself. To become unnecessary and truly obsolete.

Of course, we should acknowledge that this intention is a form of idealism. In reality you may accept the fact that this situation will never happen. This does not mean that you can compromise this idealistic part of the system of control. On the contrary; it should function as a real target that directs the central rules and ideas of its daily application.

You can compare the idealism with our understanding of a moral duty. The fact that there will always be people who will behave immoral does not imply that you should abandon your moral standards. In the situation of controlling to gain trust: the fact that there will always be individuals who will violate our trust does not mean that we should abandon the ideal of a system that is completely based on mutual trust.

But why is this idealism so important? Why do we need this idea to function in our systems of control? The most important argument for this is that an idealistic foundation of a system enables this system to create rules and principles that are natural and therefore necessary for the environment which they are applied to. Take the financial sector. Currently, a lot of measures and intervention appear to be arbitrary and very subjective and serve temporary solution to  problems that seem to arise by accident. A fundamental and durable solution might be much more easily produced by clearly developing a vision that describes our ideal situation. From this ideal, policies can be derived and choices can be clearly explained and justified.

To finish this article we can make the conclusion that, when we agree that trust is the foundation of our financial system, we should implement an idealistic, basic assumption within the core of our controlling systems: A vision which describes our ideal – the obsoleting of control – and conducts and guides the policies that form the system itself.

Or, to put it more simple, if we really want to create trust, we should start by believing that trust can be real.



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One Response to Trust and control, a philosophical examination

  1. Nicolle van Groningen says:

    Aangenomen dat de bron van controle, angst is.
    Wanneer een leidinggevende onder sterkte controle staat van op zijn beurt zijn leidinggevende, kunnen er vraagtekens gezet worden bij de intenties van de betreffende leidinggevende als persoon. Is hij persoonlijk te vertrouwen of handelt hij puur uit belang van een baas boven baas? Dit schept afstand en vaak argwaan. Wat is de druk, de noodzaak?
    Zonder vertrouwen is er geen ruimte voor een open dialoog. Echte verbeteringen binnen een bedrijf, stagneren hierdoor of gaan veel te langzaam. Klassiek probleem. En niet alleen binnen een bedrijf. Mooi voorbeeld is duurzaamheid, waar innovatieve ideeën talrijk zijn, maar waar bedrijven onderling elkaar niet vertrouwen hetgeen echte duurzaamheidacties vaak in de weg staan.
    Daarom helpt een duidelijke en doorleefde visie; het is helder waar we heen gaan en we vertrouwen van elkaar dat we allemaal hetzelfde willen; nl dat ene doel op deze wijze met behulp van die en die kernwaarden. Het maakt je iets losser van de persoon en tegelijkertijd brengt het vertrouwen. Hier komen – wellicht wat kort door de bocht – harde zakelijkheid en soft skills bij elkaar. Het mag. Maar nog altijd blijft dat er zichtbare resultaten moeten zijn, deze halen namelijk de angst weg. Kortom, bewijs. Met wat krijgen we echt zekerheid? Met controle of vertrouwen? En dan nog ligt het ook gedifferentieerder.
    Vertrouwen wordt vaak onterecht als ‘overschat’ weggezet. Het zit in ons als sociale dieren die we zijn, ingebakken in ons gedragssyteem. Ofwel, we hebben compleet vertrouwen nodig om te kunnen functioneren; zeg dat gewoon en handel ernaar, ongeacht wat je tegenkomt aan ‘ijzeren ruggegraad’ personen. En dat is niet voor softies.

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