Swift Trust

Debra Meyerson and other colleagues developed the concept of swift trust in the mid-90s, through observation of temporary work teams, such as those used in Hollywood for movie production. They discovered that the conditions surrounding temporary work teams foster the fast bonding of groups around the task based on the specifics of how groups coalesce around the project work to be done, and the suspension of mistrust.

I’ve pulled out a longish sample from Swift Trust and Temporary Groups, here, as a placeholder. I will be returning to this material for some in depth posts, but this is fundamental to my ongoing research agenda on The Social World.

As an organizational form, temporary groups turn upside down traditional notions of organizing. Temporary groups often work on tasks with a high degree of complexity, yet they lack the formal structures that facilitate coordination and control (Thompson, I967). They depend on an elaborate body of collective knowledge and diverse skills, yet individuals have little time to sort out who knows precisely what. They often entail high-risk and high-stake outcomes, yet they seem to lack the normative structures and institutional safeguards that minimize the likelihood of things going wrong. Moreover, there isn’t time to engage in the usual forms of confidence-building activities that contribute to the development and maintenance of trust in more traditional enduring forms of organization. In these respects, temporary groups challenge our conventional understandings regarding the necessary or sufficient antecedents of effective organization.

These observations come together in a fascinating puzzle. Temporary systems exhibit behavior that presupposes trust, yet traditional sources of trust – familiarity, shared experience, reciprocal disclosure, threats and deterrents, fulfilled promises, and demonstrations of nonexploitation of vulnerability – are not obvious in such systems. ln this respect, temporary systems act as if trust were present, but their histories seem to preclude its development.

In the following discussion we argue that one way to resolve this puzzle is to look more closely at the properties of trust and of temporary systems. A closer look suggests that temporary groups and organizations are tied together by trust. but it is a form of trust that has some unusual properties. In other words, we propose that the trust that occurs in temporary systems is not simply conventional trust scaled down to brief encounters among small groups of strangers. There is some of that. But as we will show, the trust that unfolds in temporary systems is more accurately portrayed as a unique form of collective perception and relating that is capable of managing issues of vulnerability, uncertainty, risk, and expectations. These four issues become relevant immediately, as soon as the temporary system begins to form. We argue that all four issues can be managed by variations in trusting behavior, and if they are not managed, participants act more like a permanent crowd than a temporary system. It is the configuration of these variations in behavior that accounts for the unique form that tnrst assumes in temporary systems, a form that we call swift trust.


The characteristics of temporary systems, which have potential relevance
for the formation of trust, include the following:

  1. Participants with diverse skills are assembled by a contractor to enact expertise they already possess.
  2. Participants have limited history of working together.
  3. Participants have limited prospects of working together again in the future.
  4. Participants often are part of limited labor pools and overlapping networks.
  5. Tasks are often complex and involve interdependent work.
  6. Tasks have a deadline.
  7. Assigned tasks are non-routine and not well understood.
  8. Assigned tasks are consequential.
  9. Continuous interrelating is required to produce an outcome.

To convert the individual expertise of strangers into interdependent work, when the nature of that interrelating and work is not obvious, people must reduce their uncertainty about one another through operations that resemble trust. Interdependent strangers faced with a deadline also face the need to handle issues of vulnerability and risk among themselves.


An inquiry into swift trust in temporary systems starts with propositions such as the following ones, which restate themes introduced earlier:

Proposition 1 . The smaller the labor pool or network from which personnel in a temporary system are drawn, the more vulnerable the people who are drawn; the stronger the grounds for not expecting harmful behavior, the more rapidly will trust develop among people. The presumption here is that people in a small labor pool have a higher chance of interacting with one another again in the future. which means their reputations as competent or incompetent people whom others can trust or distrust will follow them and shape these future contacts. Reputations are implicitly threatened in any given project to the extent that chances of future interaction increase. ln Axelrodian (Axelrod, l984) terms, the “shadow ofthe future looms larger” in such groups. However, people in overlapping networks or networks of weak ties may face more reputational vulnerability because a damaged reputation would disseminate across a wider group of people.

Proposition 2. Role-based interaction leads to more rapid development of trust than does person-based interaction. This presumes that role expectations tend to be more stable, less capricious, more standardized, and delined more in terms of tasks and specialties. all of which diminish the anticipation of ill will and help reinforce and sharpen expectations.

Proposition 3. Inconsistent role behavior and “blurring" of roles will lead to a slower build of trust. This presumes that role blurring heightens uncertainty. People who exhibit inconsistent role behavior raise questions about what they will do with whatever is entrusted to them. Attempts to answer these questions slow the development of trust.

Proposition 4. People under time pressure in temporary systems make greater use of category-driven information prosessing, emphasizing speed and confirmation rather than evidence-driven information processing that is focused on accuracy. The presumption here is that interpersonal perception in temporary systems is subject to the same patterns in a speed-accuracy nadeoff as is perception in other kinds of systems. The time-limited nature of a temporary system tends to be reflected in perceputal tradeoffs that favor speed.

Proposition 5. Category-driven information processing in temporary systems is dontinated by institutional categories that are made salient by the context in which the systems form. The presumption here is categories imported to accelerate interpersonal perception disproportionately reflect local organizational culture, industry recipes, and cultural identity-based stereotypes. These categories affect expectations of goodwill or ill will and encourage swift trust or swift distrust. In some cases, tust may develop even more swiftly when imported categories also produce behavioral confirmation.

When this happens, not only do perceivers look for data that confirm their initial categorization, but their behavior itself increases the livelihood that the target will behave in the manner anticipated. This combination of selective perception and behavioral confirmation produces data relevant to trust more quickly, which means trust itself is enacted sooner.

Proposition 6. Greater reliance on categorgrdriven information processing in temporary systems, with its attendant pressure for confirmation, leads to a faster reduction of the uncertainty associated with trust but to a higher risk that subsequent action will disconfirm the trust and produce damage. The presumption here is that swift trust, especially in response to category-driven perception, overlooks a great deal. Although these oversights leave room for behavioral confirmation and self-fulfilling prophesies, they also allow for actions that disrupt trust (Zucker, 1986. p. 59) and for errors in misplaced trust.

Proposition 7. Swift trust is more likely at moderate levels of interdependence than at either higher or lower levels. The presumption here is that moderate interdependence creates moderate vulnerability, which can he handled with the moderately strong expectations of good will that flow from placement of a trustee in a salient institutional category. People who fit salient categories are to be trusted more so as the degree of trust needed is modest.

At higher levels of interdependence, conformity of action with expectations formed on general categories alone is too little data for too high stakes. This combination represents a greater amount of perceived vulnerability than the data can address. Trust will be shaky rather than solid, slow rather than swift, and actions will be tentative rather than firm.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s