Yoram Solomon, PhD
What the Texas Storms can Teach us About Trust
Updated: Feb 24, 2021
Last week, my family and I spent three days with no electricity, heat, and were told to conserve water, even at the risk of our water pipes bursting, because both power and water equipment did not weather the storm (no pun intended). Trust was broken in many respects, but I thought I will share with you my own perspective of where trust failed.
First, Competence. You will not trust someone who is not competent (OK, the word is incompetent) in the area in which you must trust them. Did the equipment fail to do what it was supposed to? Not really. The equipment used here in Texas was not designed to withstand a storm like we had last week. It’s just like a passenger plane is not designed to float on water (unless you land it on the Hudson, that is…). The competence question, to me, is whether those who provide us with electricity knew the equipment would fail. If they didn’t, then they were incompetent.
Second, Shared Values. We make tradeoffs all the time. Equipment that would hold up to this weather costs more. Would you want to spend more money (on purchasing the equipment and maintaining/winterizing it) to assure it could withstand that “once-in-a-lifetime” storm we had last week? It is a tradeoff. But the question is: was the public been involved in making that decision? Was the public given the option to pay more and not have power outages if a strong storm like this passes through, or would to pay less and know that you will not have power? These options were never given to the public. In fact, the public was not informed that the equipment is expected to fail. The providers just hoped it will not. They did not share our values. They did not tell us the whole truth, and for that, we lost trust in them.
Third, Fairness. Some people (including myself) lost power for the better part of three days, while others did not lose power even once. The reason was not that the equipment powering my neighborhood failed while the equipment powering other neighborhoods remained operating. The decisions were made by people, flesh and blood. Maybe one neighborhood had a hospital or an underground nuclear missile silo, but to the people on the “receiving end” of those decisions, they appeared arbitrary, and thus unfair. If those making the decisions would have shared the reason why they had cut power to different neighborhood asymmetrically, it could have been acceptable to those whose power was cut more than others, but that reasoning was never shared, and thus the decisions appeared unfair. Fairness is important for trust, and in the absence of fairness, you lose trust.
Forth, Positivity. An important part of positivity is empathy, or seeing things from another person’s perspective as if you were them. The service providers were unresponsive to calls from people who lost power. With outside temperatures at or below zero and with no power or heating, people were concerned for their safety. At times like that, being unresponsive is much more impactful to trust than when a company is unresponsive to questions about a promotion for a new phone. This lack of empathy adversely affected positivity, and thus trust. When utility companies did communicate, through their websites, the information they provided was inaccurate and incorrect. While sitting in the dark for almost 24 hours, the message on my provider’s website still indicated 15–45-minute rolling blackouts. Inaccurate information, too, hurts the positivity and thus trust.
This lack of communication affected two additional factors: Time (the frequency of communications), and Intimacy (the form of communications). The utility providers lacked on both. They have not proactively communicated with the public, and have not even responded to inquiries and calls by the public. Both causing lack of trust.
So, you see, the lack of trust was not due to the equipment failing. It was due to failure in competence, shared values, fairness, positivity, time, and intimacy. All six components of trust.