Jonathan H. Westover, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Business at Utah Valley University, specializing in strategic international human resource management and organizational behavior. His ongoing research examines issues of globalization, labor transformation, work-quality characteristics, and the determinants of job satisfaction cross-nationally.
While continuing my schooling and professional studies, I have found myself drawn to the study of the sociology of organizations. One facet of organizations that I find fascinating is the formation of institutional trust. In a nut-shell, institutional trust is just like it sounds—trust within an institution—and means that institutions (in this case a particular organization) either promote or constrain micro-level interpersonal and personal trust relations through macro-level organizational processes. Often one can look specifically at a given organization’s characteristics and processes (programs, policies, procedures, hierarchy, etc.) and denote some of the impact that these characteristics and processes will have on the trust formation and maintenance of individuals within that organization.
One of the organizations that I have had the most extensive experience in, and which plays the biggest role in my daily life and the life of my family, is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS church). For much of my life, I largely took the church for granted, simply accepting the teachings of my parents and church leaders. I was taught from my infancy that the church was God’s kingdom on Earth and that it was led by a prophet who communicates directly with God and cannot lead the church astray. As I continued to grow and develop spiritually and intellectually, I began to challenge what I had always accepted as truth and began to seek personal spiritual experiences to confirm for myself that what I had learned was true. Through the diligent teachings of family members and church leaders, bolstered by my own encounters with the confirming power of the Spirit, I developed my own personal testimony and faith-based trust in the doctrines of the church, as well as the church as an organization.
However, as I have continued to ponder on the origins and nature of my trust in the church (specifically trust surrounding the church as an institution and the trust of individuals within the church, and not the doctrine), I find myself continually asking questions such as the following: Why do I trust the church? Why do I trust my local priesthood leaders? Why do I entrust my little children with primary workers I sometimes barely know? Why do I trust men and women I sometimes barely know to come into my home on a monthly basis? This list can go on for a while.
I have concluded that faith-based trust can only take us so far. It can account for our belief in the doctrines and origin of the church and it can account for our trust in the overall organization of the church and its leaders, but it does not really get to the more specific micro-oriented trust-questions posed above. I believe that the prophets are oracles of God and we have been promised that the president of the church will never lead us astray, but we have received no such promise regarding other church leaders, particularly farther down the church priesthood hierarchy to the local-level leaders and other church members. Yet week after week church members hand their tithing checks over to a member of the bishopric—trusting that the money will go where it is supposed to go; participate in private temple-recommend interviews with the bishop and a member of the stake presidency—trusting that the particular leader will keep the details of those proceedings private; send their kids to primary, Sunday school, and other various young men’s and young women’s outings—trusting that teachers and leaders will protect their children and behave and teach appropriately; and invite other members into their homes—trusting that these individuals have good intentions and are seeking our welfare.
So, why do we continually trust in this manner? Are we simply a bunch of naïve idealistic individuals who live in a fantasy world where everyone and everything related to the church deserves our unquestioning trust? Though there may be some amount of truth to that, and some individuals may certainly be more naïve than others, I believe there are good reasons why we tend to trust in this way and that there are specific institutional mechanisms within the church structure and organization that help individuals within the church to develop and then maintain their micro-level and macro-level trust of the church, its policies and programs, its leaders, and its members.
A Brief Background into Trust Research
Scholars across academic disciplines (i.e. sociology, psychology, economics, political science, organizational behavior) look at trust from a variety of angles. One of the best single references providing a solid background on issues of micro and macro organizational trust development and maintenance is in the introductory article of an Academy of Management special issue on trust. Rousseau et al. (1998) argue that there is “considerable overlap and synthesis in contemporary scholarship on trust” (402). Scholars, regardless of discipline, seem to agree that trust revolves around both one’s willingness to rely on another (or be vulnerable) and one’s positive expectations for the future. Along these lines, Rousseau offers the following definition for trust: “Trust is a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behaviors of another” (1998: 395).
Additionally, scholars across disciplines tend to agree on the conditions by which trust arises: (1) risk, and (2) interdependence. Rousseau et al. state that “Risk taking buttresses a sense of trust when the expected behavior materializes,” while “The nature of trust changes as interdependence increases” (1998:395). Thus, without one’s willingness to both take risks and rely on others, trust relations cannot develop, nor will they be maintained.
Furthermore, many scholars see trust as a dynamic phenomenon, yet tend to focus on specific phases in developing conceptual frameworks, such as: (1) Building Phase, (2) Stability Phase, and (3) Dissolution Phase. In the “building phase,” initial risks are taken and reliance and interdependence is manifested through interpersonal interactions, and as the name implies, interpersonal trust builds as expectations for future interactions are met. The “stability phase” is when there is a firmly established history between actors, which perpetuates continued trusting relations. There is the potential, however, for trust erosion over time (“dissolution phases”), which tends to occur after a lengthy “stability phase” in which risk taking and interdependence play an increasingly smaller role in the continued trust relationship, thus potentially eroding trust.
Once more, most scholarly work on trust tends to focus on the individual (as trustor or trustee). Though this is certainly important, of particular interest to me is the sociological perspective on trust, viewing trust as the result, in part, of institutional and organizational arrangements. It is clear that institutions can potentially both promote and constrain interpersonal trust relations, where micro-level trust relations are enhanced or constrained by the more macro processes.
Rousseau et al. (1998) identify and discusses different forms of trust: (1) Deterrent forms of trust, (2) Calculus-based trust, (3) Relational trust, and (4) Institutional-based trust. The first and the last forms of trust seem to fit best into a sociological perspective of trust. Inquiry into the deterrent forms of trust revolves around the question of whether sanctions, or punishments, foster or hinder trust, as well as whether sanctions can act as a substitute for trust or signal the absence of trust. Similarly, Rousseau et al. state, “Institutional factors can act as broad supports for the critical mass of trust that sustains further risk taking and trust behaviors” (1998:400). Therefore, institutional-based trust can serve as a springboard for trust and support the development of trust. On the other hand, as with sanctions, mechanisms for institutional-based trusts can actually serve to undermine interpersonal trust, as such mechanisms can reduce opportunities for creating interpersonal trust (based on risk-taking and interdependence). Finally, Rousseau et al. state, “The possibility of a step function characterizing the role of institutional trust plays in shaping interpersonal trust remains a subject for future research” (1998:401).
A Trust Model
The trust model below visual depicts some of the key findings from the various academic disciplines. At the base of the model is a sliding scale of trust, ranging from more or less interpersonal trust to more or less institutional trust. The argument often posited in the academic literature (particularly the economics literature) is that interpersonal versus institutional trust is a sort of zero-sum game—the more of one means the less of another, and so-forth. Thus, at any given moment, there will be some level of interpersonal trust between actors, but that trust also will co-exist with some sort of institutional trust. Furthermore, the greater institutional trust, based on institutional/organizational policies and procedures (i.e. deterrent forms of trust and institutional-based trust), the less the need for interpersonal trust within some organizational context (less risk involved in interpersonal interactions and less interdependence). However, when looked at from the opposite perspective, it can be argued that specific institutional arrangements within organizations can create a fertile atmosphere for the development of interpersonal trust—hence the upward moving spiral of trust, in an expanding reciprocal process of greater and greater trust development. As an institution creates the groundwork to protect individuals from interpersonal interactions gone awry, individuals may be more likely to take the initial steps required to form a social-exchange relationship, and as the reliance on the other party pays social dividends over time, expectations are met, further risk-taking and reliance can occur, and at the same time the institutional processes that helped to jump-start the interpersonal interaction is also bolstered, eventually creating an increasingly greater level of overall trust. It should be noted that the opposite can also be true, in which case an institution can erode both the institutional and interpersonal trust of those within its influence.
As a continuation of the model presented above in looking more deeply into the role that institutions play in trust formation and maintenance, I have several additional questions that I will try and answer as I look at the role of institutional trust in the LDS church:
- Once institutional controls/structures help to provide an environment for interpersonal trust to emerge, what role do such controls play in maintaining/encouraging greater continued interpersonal trust? Additionally, what role do such controls play in dissolving/hindering greater continued interpersonal trust?
- What specific institutional mechanisms/controls/structures impact trust building/formation and help in creating a stable environment for continued interpersonal and institutional trust?
Why Individuals Trust Institutions and Discussion of Mechanisms
In trying to answer the questions above, from my personal experience, as well as my review of the literature on institutional trust (for examples, see also: Luo, 2002; Hewett and Bearden, 2001; Das and Teng, 2001; Young-Ybarra and Wiersema, 1999; Doney et al., 1998), I believe that individuals trust any institution based on the following, each of which will be discussed in turn:
- Knowledge of the History of the Institution (in general)
- Personal History and Overall Knowledge of the Institution
- Institution-based Trust Facilitating Mechanisms/Procedures
Knowledge of the History of the Institution (in general):
Background/Emergence of Institution: Where did the institution come from? What are its origins? In the case of the LDS church, the common belief held among members is that it has divine origin, and thus a great legitimacy.
Past Interactions with Society at large, as portrayed in the media in particular: How is the institution viewed by society? Has there been a lot of scandal in the past that has been reported? Is there a great deal of social strain between society as a whole and the institution? In the case of the LDS church, things are much better in terms of media portrayal and overall societal interactions and functioning today than they were 100 years ago (or even 20-30 years ago).
Institutional Uniformity (same everywhere—from one location to the next): For example, a lifetime of experience with the LDS church (in many different locations—different wards, stakes, areas, countries, etc.) has reinforced in me that the church is the same in Tooele, UT, as it is in Seoul, Korea, and thus experiences and expectations are transferable across units/contexts, which leads to an increase in my overall trust in the LDS church as an institution.
Personal History and Overall Knowledge of the Institution
Personal Upbringing and the Establishment of personal values, beliefs, and social norms: Binging raised in an LDS family has helped to instill in me the values, beliefs, and norms promoted by the church, and thus an increased trust in the institution.
Social interactions with individuals/small groups within the institution: This stems from the idea that trust is a byproduct of “social intelligence”—being able to discern/detect trustworthiness is important and such ability only develops over time through multiple interactions. In the church, we have ample opportunity for such interactions, as we serve in callings and socialize one with another.
Trust Facilitating Mechanisms/Procedures
Good-will gestures to the surrounding community/society: This includes humanitarian aid, public outreach, working cooperatively with other religious institutions to promote the social good, etc. The church as an organization has made an extensive effort to enhance the public image of the church in each of these ways.
Consistent Communication/Openness/Transparency (i.e. financial transparency): This includes dissemination of information down an organizational hierarchy, and financial transparency in the form of yearly financial audits, etc. The church continually tries to efficiently utilize the proper channels of communication within its leadership hierarchy to disseminate information, in addition to utilizing media technology for such events as General Conference, world-wide leadership training meetings, etc. Additionally, each year in the church’s general conference there is the independent financial audit report that is provided to the church membership. Each of these measures help to ensure that everyone is hearing the same thing, straight from the source. Thus expectations are clear.
Private enforcement/regulation systems: In a given organization, these can take many forms, including policy and procedures manuals, commonly known leadership decisions, etc. Within the church, the Church Handbook of Instruction provides such information on policies, and procedures, relating to such things as intended organization structure and functioning, and specifics surrounding church disciplinary actions. Thus there is source of uniformity in administration, which breeds and atmosphere fertile for understanding future expectations, which is a key component to trust formation and maintenance.
A Further look at the Case of the LDS Church: Two Examples
Any organization that (1) successfully institutionalizes a culture of innovation and risk-taking, (2) requires the cooperation and interdependence of work groups, (3) creates an environment of multiple interactions that help to establish expectations (informal norms and rules) surrounding reciprocal exchanges of actors in the organization, and (4) provides detailed policy guidelines to communicate formal rules, will be successful in promoting trust within that organization/institution (whether it be an educational organization, occupational/business organization, religious organization, etc.). The LDS church is one of many examples that fit at least some of the above criteria.
Specifically, in the case of the LDS church, the combination of a centralized hierarchal organizational structure, with formal policies and procedures disseminated from church headquarters, and the autonomy afforded individual wards, provides the opportunity for institutional trust that can provide a fertile environment for interpersonal trust. Within the LDS church, there are two examples that immediately come to mind regarding trust: (1) the paying of tithes and offerings, and (2) the missionary training center (MTC) experience and serving a 2-year mission for the church.
The Paying of Tithes and Offerings
In dealing with the tithes and offerings of church members, the LDS church has gone to great lengths to create a trusting exchange. Paying a significant portion of one’s income to a religious institution requires more than just faith in the principle itself, but also a high level of trust in that institution—a belief that all donated moneys will be handled properly and that ultimately all donations will be allocated in an effective and meaningful way. The church, as an institution, has done several things to create an atmosphere that helps to facilitate this needed trust, a few of which are briefly discussed below. First, the church provides detailed policies and guidelines for local ecclesiastical leaders regarding the handling of all donated money. For example, members of the bishopric are not allowed to carry donated money with them over-night (with the exception of the bishop), but rather are required to immediately input the donations into the computer system and make bank deposits. This helps to both ensure that there is no mis-use of funds and that those funds are not misplaced. Along with these guidelines come harsh penalties for abusers of this trust (i.e. church disciplinary action—both deterrent and institutional based trust). Second, church members always work in groups—never alone—and there are always at least two people present when handling donated funds specifically, and all church funds in general, for the same general reasons (institutional-based trust and relational trust). Thirdly, most members donate through the handing of a tithing envelope to a member of the bishopric. This requires multiple interactions, which over time will lead to the development of interpersonal trust (relational trust). Thus, in the short-run, the church has institutional mechanisms in place to take away most initial risk involved with such monetary transactions. At the same time, it creates an atmosphere that promotes interpersonal interaction, interdependence, and ultimately further trust development.
The Missionary Training Center (MTC) Experience and Serving a Mission
Along with the paying of tithes and offerings, devoting oneself to time at the MTC and missionary service also requires a great deal of trust, by the church and its members. Nineteen year old boys and twenty-one year old girls give up 18 months to 2 years of their life to be sent all around the world, at their own expense, to share the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. This represents a significant sacrifice of time and money, which requires a high level of trust and a belief that all resources (time/money) will be used to accomplish the purposes of the service. Just as was the case with the tithes and offerings example above, the church, as an institution, has done several things to create an atmosphere that helps to facilitate this needed trust, a few of which are briefly discussed below. First, not just anyone can serve a mission on a whim, but rather such service requires an extensive application process, both to weed out those who may be unable to serve in a full-time capacity, due to medical or other issues, and those who are not spiritually prepared for such service. This helps to ensure that only those physically, mentally, and spiritually ready are sent out into the world to represent the church in this grueling term of service. This policy of an extensive application and screening process both protects the church as well as its members from the possible pitfalls that could be awaiting them (institutional-based trust). Second, there is a clear track-record for those that serve. On an organizational level, parents who may be contemplating whether or not to send out their children to far off, sometimes potentially dangerous, parts of the world, can see all that the church does organizationally to train, develop, and even protect those serving (institutional-based trust). Thirdly, a fundamental part of the mission experience is the credo to always serve two-by-two and to have regular interviews with mission leadership. This helps to ensure multiple interactions of individual with individual, companion, with companion, and mission leaders with the missionaries, which over time will lead to the development of interpersonal trust (relational trust). Thus, just like with the example of tithes and offerings, in the short-run, the church has institutional mechanisms in place to take away much of initial risk involved with such intensive dedication and service, while at the same time, it creates an atmosphere that promotes interpersonal interaction, interdependence, and ultimately further trust development.
My Personal Experience
The Church and Institutional Trust
To revisit the questions posed at the beginning of this article, first—why do I trust the church? From an institutional perspective, I trust the church because I know it to be a sound organization, built upon a firm social foundation, with policies and procedures in place which limit an individual’s ability to take advantage. It should be noted that the LDS church has a positive track-record of policy adjustments to create or reinforce institutional trust mechanisms when the institution as a whole is failing to maintain trust (e.g. 2 primary teachers per class, two-deep leadership and youth protection policies in relation to scouting activities, etc.). Furthermore, I can look at the history of the church and see all of the good that it has done in my community and in the world.
The Church and Interpersonal Trust
Additionally, on a more interpersonal note—why do I trust my local priesthood leaders? Why do I entrust my little children with primary workers I sometimes barely know? If I am honest with myself, the only reason I trust these individuals before even getting to know them is because I trust the church and know that there are policies and procedures in place to protect me, my wife, and my children. But it goes far beyond that. The foundation of institutional trust that the church organization provides helps me to interact with people I may not otherwise interact with, and in this way it facilitates the development of those interpersonal trust relationships. Initially I trust the bishop because he is the bishop and I trust the organizational procedures in place that have put him into that position. However, as I get to know the bishop, give him my tithes and offerings, hold interview with him, and work with him in various service capacities, I learn to trust him as a person, and not solely as an institutional representative. Furthermore, I trust the primary workers who teach my children initially because I know that there are two teachers in a classroom and I know that the primary presidency is there to keep an eye on everything. But then, over time, as I get to know the teachers, I grow to trust them as individuals and show appreciation to them for the service they provide my children.
The Church and Faith-based Trust
Finally, once again—why do I trust the church? From a faith-based perspective of trust, I trust the church first and foremost because I have had spiritual experiences that have confirmed to me that the doctrines are true, that the church leadership is appointed by God himself, and that the programs of the church are of significant value and serve an important purpose. That is not to say that I naively believe that all individuals I encounter within the church will live up to the level of trust I put in the church itself, but I recognize that God must use imperfect people to perform this great work. It is then my opportunity to develop interpersonal trust relationships with individuals within the church, built upon a foundation of both my faith-based and institution-based trust in the church as a whole.
In conclusion, my quest for better understanding the origins of trust have led me on an interesting path. I have examined my own faith and the reasons for why I trust the church, its programs, and the individuals within it. Through applying a synthesis of academic theories on trust to my knowledge and experiences within the church, I have tentatively concluded that interpersonal trust generally relies on institutional trust-promoting mechanisms to aid in the initial development and maintenance of those institutional trust relations. It is important to note, however, that these same institutional mechanisms can sometimes hinder further development of trust through eroding the opportunities and necessity for risk-taking and interdependence, both key characteristics vital to an ongoing healthy trust relationship. From my experiences within the church organization, the LDS church generally seems to do a great job of promoting both the institutional trust mechanisms, while emphasizing the continued need for interpersonal trust relationships, local autonomy in decision making, and the interdependence of local members working together to meet local needs.
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Full Citation for this Article: Westover, Jonathan H. (2011) "Why We Trust: Institutional and Interpersonal Trust Formation and the LDS Church," SquareTwo, Vol. 4 No. 3 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org.Sq2ArticleWestoverTrust.html , access date [give access date].
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