Trust through a Smokey Wire Lens: II. Social Aspects: Guest Post by Peter Williams

When it comes to wildland fire, whether a prescribed burn, an escaped burn, arson, or a natural start, managing fire well requires trust between land managers and communities, between different land management agencies, and between crew members and more senior
management. With more trust, the work is safer, coordination stronger, costs lower. With more trust, community support is greater, media coverage often has a different tone, and residents believe more of the information provided.

But how does trust work in a group, socially, in a community? Three psychological aspects of trust, laid out in a separate article, give us some good ideas. For one thing, trust really is social. It doesn’t exist except between or among people. Even that old saying about trusting yourself
is somewhat sketchy even if sometimes useful.

Digging into the social aspects of trust, it’s important to realize that trust operates at multiple social scales. Three that often come up are these: person to person, group and organizational, and social systems. You may trust someone as a person but not trust the organization they work for. You may not trust the healthcare system but trust your doctor. You may not trust the financial market or the economy but trust your local grocery store. Applied to wildland fire, building trust depends on person-to-person interactions as well as on what a group or
organization does and whether the wildland fire management system seems to be working well, at least in some meaningful way, whatever it might be.

Another social aspect of trust is that it is oriented towards the future but based on what has happened in the past. It makes no sense to talk about trusting something you know has already happened. On the other hand, it makes total sense to talk about whether you trust something about the future, like trusting that someone will act or behave in a way consistent with at least some of your interests, perhaps because of previous experience.

Because trust is about the future, it is what some call supra-rational, beyond reason alone. This is because, when you trust, you’re taking a leap of faith from what you know about the past to what you believe about the future. This is important because it suggests facts and data alone are inadequate to build trust because those are always about the past, again going to the idea that building trust requires attention to all three bases: cognitive, emotional, and behavior.

And all this goes to an important fourth point: because trust is about future behavior yet to occur, trust is risky. The importance is that, because trust is risky, thinking about how other people see risk can help if you want to build trust. For example, since trusting someone is
always somewhat risky, anything you can do to increase another person’s confidence that their trust is well placed works in part by lowering their sense of risk. Somewhat similarly, anything you do to help someone feel less exposed to risk also helps build trust. When you reduce a risk for someone, you lay a foundation from which you can build trust.

Another significant aspect of trust is that it can emerge or grow even when there is no existing trust. In some cases, distrust can turn to trust remarkably fast in the right circumstances. For example, if you distrust someone but they surprise you with an act of kindness, you may be
more willing to reconsider that distrust and, just maybe, their action plants a kernel of trust. Perhaps one of the more important social aspects of trust is that it is reciprocal, it works in both directions. You are more likely to trust someone who shows trust towards you or behaves in a trustworthy way towards you. This has implications for building trust too: if you want to build trust, showing trust towards a person or group can help.

If you want to build trust, these insights from the social perspective can be as important as those from an individual perspective. Trust depends on what someone thinks, perceives, or experiences, as well as on what they feel about those experiences and how they behave or act. And those individual, psychological aspects play out in social settings, whether between individuals, group, or institutions. Building trust with individuals, as with building it between organizations, is helped by understanding depth and nuances of trust. We’ll look at that next.

3 thoughts on “Trust through a Smokey Wire Lens: II. Social Aspects: Guest Post by Peter Williams”

  1. One of the biggest challenges of maintaining trust at the forest level is the revolving door of personnel and changes in administrations (trickle down impacts).

    • Yes, definitely a challenge. The latter one is probably best dealt with by making progress on the former.

      What I’ve seen work especially well is ‘intentional attention’ to two things: (1) succession planning and (2) transition management. Succession planning is getting prepared for inevitable personnel changes; transition management is putting those plans into place when a personnel change happens. In a sense, the first is upstream of a change and the second is downstream, but paying attention to both is most important.

      Like you say, these issues come up frequently. In my work, I often work with clients to, first, get both basic ideas into their bubble of “situational awareness” as managers, which just means them realizing these are important and deserve their attention before a problem comes up.

      The second piece is to get both embedded into local leadership staff discussions, their regular work or workflow, which is that intentionality aspect. Dealing with these doesn’t take much time if you do it upfront, but it can take much more time and have the serious issues you mention if you wait until there’s a problem. For example, one piece of being prepared might be having a basic local “on-boarding” plan for welcoming and orienting new personnel, especially anyone in more of a leadership role.

      In other words, the revolving door isn’t going to go away, so its whether and how it’s handled locally that makes the difference.

      Mike, does this fit your experience too?

      • I agree, a local onboarding plan is the way to go including meeting local government and community leaders. Also, quickly building good relations with staff helps spread the word through communities providing for a healthy “honeymoon” period.

        I’m going to be jumping on a plane in a few hours and waking tomorrow in a different country tomorrow, but I’ll keep following these posts. Thanks for doing this


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