Can you have inter-organizational trust without communication? No.
You can have an exchange of information without trust but you cannot have trust without equal, respectful, reciprocal communication.
Cynthia Hardy, Nelson Phillips & Tom Lawrence explored the role of trust in communication and the role of communication in trust. They described trust “as a process of communication” where partners build trust by creating shared meaning (1998, p.69).
Essentially, through “relevant, timely and reliable” communication, parties can understand each other’s values, perceptions and expectations – the basis of identity trust– can be more committed to the alliance, and can engage in cooperative behaviours (Morgan & Hunt, 1994, p. 25).
The challenge is ensuring the communication happens in an environment that is free from manipulation or capitulation (Hardy et al., 1998). Otherwise, you’re back to the Covey & Link example highlighted above.
Establishing a process for two-way communication that creates shared meaning may be difficult however the benefits are significant.
Benefits of Two-way Communications:
- Creation and sustaining of trust through a two-way flow of information which feeds on loose reciprocity over time (Bönte, 2008; Sako, 1998; Sako & Helper, 1998).
- Creation of goodwill trust and a safeguard against opportunism through customer provision of information to the supplier. Conversely, a gap between supplier’s provision of information to customers and customers’ disclosure of information to suppliers increases customer opportunism (Sako, 1998, p.104).
Simply put, in the absence of information, people may take advantage of one another.
- Innovation & value creation (Dyer & Chu, 2008, p.57) because
“an interfirm knowledge-sharing routine…permits the transfer, recombination, or creation of specialized knowledge” (Dyer & Singh, 1998, p.665).
- Creation of a virtuous cycle of trust through “transparency and keeping a common project record and administration” (Laan et al., 2011, p.106).
- Improved performance due to open information sharing (Johnston et al., 2004).
Overcoming Communication Challenges:
Communicating to build trust can be especially challenging in cases where partners are very different. For example :
- firm-NGO partnerships (Rivera-Santos & Rufin, 2010)
- virtual organizations (Kasper-Fuehrer & Ashkanasy, 2001).
Here are five ways partners can overcome these challenges:
1. Establish regular communications sessions.
2. Construct common meanings through open dialogue, “language or vocabulary briefings” (Hardy et al.,1998; Janowicz-Panjaitan & Noorderhaven, 2009), development of a handbook, mutual internet site or chat room (Kasper-Fuehrer & Ashkanasy, 2001).
3. Demonstrate a commitment to truth and accuracy (Casson, 1995).
4. Use compatible communications equipment (Casson, 1995) which includes both physical and human components. Kasper-Fuehrer & Ashkanasy (2001) stress that both ‘platforms’ must be available, reliable and user-friendly in order to communicate trustworthiness (p.240).
Imagine someone telling you to ‘contact me any time’ but the technology doesn’t work or the person is never available – not exactly a sound trust-building communication strategy.
5. Signal intentionality to help a trustor determine whether your intentions are benevolent and to set the tone for the relationship when strong forms of trust have not had time to develop (Doney et al., 1998; Girmscheid & Brockmann, 2010; Hexmoor et al., 2006; Kasper-Fuehrer & Ashkanasy, 2001; Laan et al., 2011).
In their case study of a large-scale construction project, Laan et al. write:
“for trust to arise, project partners have to show that they are actually aiming for optimizing the alliance” (2011, p. 105). Therefore, the authors encourage organizations “to adopt an attitude reflecting dedication and benevolence” (ibid., p.106).
Signalling intentionality is extremely important since perceptions of trust in the initial stages of cooperation can create a virtuous cycle of trust (Vlaar et al., 2007). Then, through common language and understanding, regular communications exchanges, reliable and timely information, and the right people and technologies, trust between organizations can flourish.
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