Trust: Reason, Routine, Reflexivity

Alex Wright (Senior Lecturer, Wolverhampton Business School, University of Wolverhampton, UK)

Personnel Review

ISSN: 0048-3486

Article publication date: 11 April 2008



Wright, A. (2008), "Trust: Reason, Routine, Reflexivity", Personnel Review, Vol. 37 No. 3, pp. 350-352.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This book attempts to examine the notion of trust afresh. In doing so, the author conducts an analysis of how trust has been traditionally conceptualized, and presents some suggestions for how alternative theorizing offers researchers the tantalizing possibility of “…getting to the bottom of the phenomenon … ” (Möllering, 2006, p. 1). It is structured into eight chapters followed by an extensive bibliography. The first chapter presents an overview of the book and seeks to make the argument that trust is an important issue for those interested in management and organization studies. Chapters two through to four comprise a comprehensive and thoughtful review of the key literature on trust. By structuring these chapters around the concerns of reason, routine and reflexivity, Möllering draws from works not normally considered within the trust lexicon. This makes for an interesting and challenging discussion of the strengths and limitations of previous trust scholarship, and for me, represents the book's key contribution. In chapter five the reader is introduced to the author's central argument, that of trust involving a “leap of faith” on the part of the trustor, which Möllering reframes as “suspension”. Chapter six reflects upon empirical studies of trust, which have included both quantitative and qualitative methodologies, and ends with a call for more interpretive inquiries. Three case study examples of qualitative research follow in chapter seven, which purport to demonstrate the contribution that interpretive inquiry can make. Chapter eight acts as a summary of the ideas detailed previously and presents suggested avenues for further trust research.

The idea that in order to trust, an actor must make a “leap of faith”, seems to have first been discussed in a book chapter by Lewicki and Bunker (1996, p. 188), who describe such an act as necessary because the trusting party can never know everything about the other. They seem to be saying that because absolute knowledge about the other is impossible, a judgment about their trustworthiness must be made on incomplete knowledge. Möllering expands this idea and sees reason, routine and reflexivity as all playing a part in an actor preparing him or herself to trust, but advises that trust is ultimately reached through the metaphorical “leap of faith”. Möllering (2006, p. 121) suggests that “… if we want to imagine what a conscious leap of faith feels like, the moment of jumping to cross a gap without being certain that one will make it unharmed is one of the best illustrations … ”. A key argument he seeks to make is that such leaps of faith are undertaken consciously with the actor aware of what they are doing, even if they are not fully cognisant of the reasons why he/she is doing it.

“Suspension” is the term Möllering prefers to “leap of faith”. For him, this better describes the process actors engage in when making sense of irreducible uncertainty and vulnerability. He states “Suspension is the essence of trust, because trust as a state of positive expectation of others can only be reached when reason, routine and reflexivity are combined with suspension” (2006, p. 110). Here, suspension is presented as both a process individuals go through on their way to trust and a constituent of trust, in the sense that if there is no suspension there is no trust. To describe suspension as the essence of trust makes the claim that first, trust possesses an essence, which to an extent turns trust into a thing because only things have essences, and second, advances the notion of suspension as being the “… important missing element … ” (2006, p. 106) that henceforth makes trust explainable. To substantiate his point Möllering reviews the work of Bernstein et al. (2004) among others, who interviewed patients facing brain tumour surgery, and claims the interview data clearly documents the presence of suspension. This claim seems to be based on the idea that the patients recognized that their trust in their doctor was based on something more than an objective certainty, which he then labels as “suspension”. The point is further stretched when Möllering (2006, p. 122) concludes somewhat extravagantly, “By achieving suspension, patients can be less terrified and undergo life‐threatening brain surgery in a trustful, optimistic way”.

The call for more interpretive research into trust stems from an acknowledgement that traditionally the field has been dominated by quantitative studies that have sought to identify antecedents of trust, leading to attempts to measure their presence and influence on trusting behaviour. While admitting that advances in quantitative methods fascinate him, Möllering doubts that such approaches can lead to greater understanding of the core conceptual issues surrounding trust, like suspension. He correctly, in my view, suspects that attempts at theorizing and measuring trust may have led us further away from understanding more about how trust is experienced and enacted by agents during their micro organizing activities. However, like many trust researchers, his descriptions of potential interpretive methodologies belie his historical preference for quantitative studies, such that the vocabulary of a deductive epistemology dominates his language. For example, while he advocates for a process research approach and calls for greater researcher reflexivity, so that consideration is given as to how the researcher and the values and preferences he/she brings to the research, influence what questions are asked and what research is done, he also characterizes interviews as “… single points of measurement … ” (2006, p. 159), which objectifies this interaction detaching the interviewer from the data that is co‐constructed during interview exchanges. And rather than presenting suspension as a potentially useful concept from which to study trust‐in‐practice, it is put forward as something that needs to be separated out and verified in empirical inquiries.

There is much in this book that is commendable. Someone new to the field will benefit greatly from the reviews of literature contained in chapters two, three and four. Those already established in the trust research community will find reading these sections challenging to their own understanding of trust, as Möllering successfully integrates material from a wide range of sources into a coherently presented argument. Similarly, the passages that deal with how trust has been studied quantitatively are also informative and provide a good synopsis of how this methodology has been used to empirically investigate trust. I am less convinced by some of the other arguments put forward. Qualitative studies of trust are mentioned, but the section lacks a thorough discussion of qualitative research focused on the meaning making of actors. Interpretive inquiry of this type privileges the description, explanation and analysis of the meanings agents assign to phenomena such as trust, and their reflection on how these meanings are constructed. This would also include some consideration of how dominant meanings of trust emerge and how alternative or contradictory meanings are suppressed.

The notion of “suspension” seems to be advanced as an alternative explanation to a “leap of faith”; both conceptualizations are problematic. Both appear to be products of deterministic thinking, as they imply the processes leading up to an act of trusting are reckonable up to a final point at which something happens that can not be explained, and this is now advanced as involving a trustor in a “leap of faith” or act of “suspension”. What is problematic about this thinking is not so much that the notion of suspension is required to represent these final acts, but the assumption that the previous actions are felt to be explainable. On the one hand Möllering criticizes quantitative studies for taking us away from understanding better how trust mediates what actors actually do, but on the other, he seems happy to accept their explanations of how trust is created up to the final point where suspension is required.


Bernstein, M., Potvin, D. and Martin, D.K. (2004), “A qualitative study of attitudes toward error in patients facing brain tumour surgery”, The Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, Vol. 31 No. 2, pp. 20812.

Lewicki, R.J. and Bunker, B.B. (1996), “Developing and maintaining trust in work relationships”, in Kramer, R.M. and Tyler, T.R. (Eds), Trust in Organizations: Frontiers of Theory and Research, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, pp. 11439.

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