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TRUST on the leading edge of survival

In January, before the pandemic, I offered a blog on Moving at the Speed of Trust: The Role of Blue Marble Evaluation.  This is an updated review of how attention to trust has evolved during this turbulent year. In that new year’s blog I wrote:

Trust matters for transformation. The Blue Marble theory of transformation hypothesizes that transformation requires multiple actors, networks, organizations, movements, and individuals actively finding common ground thereby magnifying their separate efforts collectively to create critical mass and tipping points. A theory of transformation integrates and aligns multiple theories of change. One important constituent theory of change in support of transformation is the necessity of building, nurturing, and sustaining trust in the “global commons,” a way of designating our shared interest in the future. 

This blog takes a look at how we’re doing with trust in the global commons.

I was trained as a sociologist. At its core, sociology is concerned with the Hobbesian question of order:  what holds society together? How do individuals and groups form and sustain agreements or relationships with each other to counteract temptations to act solely on self-interest?  In essence, how do individuals trust one another and behave in a trustworthy manner? In the context of the Blue Marble, this becomes a global question: what holds the world together? How can humanity build global relationships of trust essential to future survival and thrival?

Thomas Hobbes′s answer was that communities have to rely on an external authority to impose and enforce agreements with one another and maintain order in society.  Elinor Ostrom, recipient of the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics Sciences  especially in “the Commons,” offered a different analysis: communities are held together internally by generating and observing norms of trust around shared interests and values.

“Empirical studies confirm the important role of trust in overcoming social dilemmas…as the most efficient mechanism to enhance transactional outcomes” (Ostrum, 2010).

Electoral distrust

Trust has emerged as a core issue in the American presidential election. President Trump and his campaign continue to promulgate doubts about the trustworthiness of the election results. But beyond the election, the larger issue is declining trust within American society. In 1997, 64% of Americans had a good or great deal of trust in the wisdom of their fellow citizens. The trust indicator fell to just 33% in 2020 (Brooks, New York Times, October 2020). Trust in institutions of all kinds is in decline: trust in government, police, schools, health authorities, and clergy. In the 2020 Gallup poll on levels of trust for different professions, nurses were the most trusted (85% trust level) with engineers second (66%). Car salespeople and members of Congress comingled together at the bottom of the trust scale with under 10% trusting them.

Pete Buttigieg, a former Democratic candidate for president, published a book entitled TRUST just days before the election  His reflections on his campaign experience led him to focus on declining social trust as threatening the fabric of society. Columnist Roger Cohen, writing for the Sunday NY Times, in his last column before the election, lamented the declining trust in international alliances:

“The presidency and dishonesty have become synonymous. Alliances are founded on trust. When that goes, they begin to dissolve.”

Trust in Evaluation

The preceding snippets on trust provide a context for considering the importance of trust in evaluations. In an important article in the American Journal of Evaluation, Sandy Taut and Marv Alkin (2003) reported program staff perceptions of barriers to evaluation implementation.

Asked what they considered to be barriers to evaluation implementation, interviewees focused on the evaluator’s social competence and program staff’s lack of   trust in evaluators and the evaluation process….[T]he findings reinforce our understanding that in order to avoid barriers to evaluation implementation, it is important to create a trusting relationship with those affected by the evaluation through continuous participation and communication, and to conduct carefully planned, methodologically appropriate evaluations.

Trust is not a singular, all-encompassing concept. The nature and meaning of trust, and its critical role in evaluations, varies by type of evaluation. Below is a world premiere of 12 evaluation variations on the theme of trust.

1. Accountability evaluation
  • Trust but verify
2. Summative evaluation
  • Trust the judgment of merit & worth
3. Formative evaluation
  • Trust the feedback for improvement
4. Developmental evaluation
  • Trust the relationship (social innovator and evaluator working together)
5. Theory-driven evaluation
  • Trust the theory test
6. Participatory evaluation
  • Trust the process
7. Rubrics evaluation
  • Trust the indicator
8. Qualitative evaluation
  • Trustworthiness of the data (in lieu of validity in quantitative measurement)
9. Realist evaluation
  • Trust illumination of causal mechanisms
10. Utilization-focused evaluation
  • Trust that evaluation use will occur
11. Principles-focused evaluation
  • Trust shared values
12. Blue Marble Evaluation
  • Trust that evaluators can contribute to a more sustainable and equitable world

The point of the table is to highlight the underlying importance of addressing trust in all kinds of evaluation. Facilitating and nurturing trust will vary by the purpose and type of evaluation, but some manifestation of the issue of trust will always be present and need attention.

Sapien leadership and evaluation

One of the principles of Facilitating Evaluation (Patton, 2017) is facilitating to the leading edge. This means incorporating emergent ideas and new directions into evaluative thinking and practice. In that spirit, and as part of our ruminations on trust, let us consider the implications for evaluation of Sapient Leadership. On October 29 the influential Harvard Business Review published an article on “What It Takes to Lead Through an Era of Exponential Change” by Aneel Chima, Director of Health and Human Performance of the Stanford Flourishing Project, and Ron Gutman, an inventor and serial technology/healthcare entrepreneur. They open the article by arguing that there will be no return to “normal,” but that instead the future will reveal a “new normal” of change, marked by three dimensions:

  • It’s perpetual — occurring all the time in an ongoing way.
  • It’s pervasive — unfolding in multiple areas of life at once.
  • It’s exponential — accelerating at an increasingly rapid rate.

This three-dimensional (3-D) change is defining our emerging future and, as a consequence, effective leadership will be defined by the ability to navigate this new reality. (Chima & Gutman, 2020)

They engaged in a process of consulting with a distinguished pool of recognized leaders in business and innovation globally to identify what kind of leadership will be needed for perpetual, pervasive, and exponential change. What emerged they labeled Sapien Leadership. ”Sapient” refers to the adaptive nature of humans that has supported and guided our species evolution. They identified four pillars of Sapient Leadership. In the table below I list each pillar in the left column and my interpretation of the implications for Blue Marble Evaluation in the right column. You’ll note that trust is a pervasive theme.

Pillars of Sapient Leadership Blue Marble Evaluation implications for working with Sapient leaders
1. Leader humility, authenticity, and openness instills trust and psychological safety. Blue marble evaluations address the high stakes future of humanity on Earth. Navigating the uncertainties and complexities of global trends and challenges requires mutually respectful and trusting relationships between leaders and evaluators.
2. Trust and psychological safety empower individuals and teams. Evaluations are often perceived as threatening so engaging collaboratively in ways that provide psychological safety for intended users and enhance trust will facilitate the empowerment that is essential for transforming global systems.
3. Continuously learning teams enable effective navigation of 3-D change. Blue marble evaluation offers a process and framework for continuous learning in a 3-D post-normal world
4. Shared purpose and values enhance focus, cohesion, and resilience during 3-D change. Blue marble evaluators have “skin in the game” where the game is the future of humanity. World savvy evaluators, recognizing that time is of the essence, make common purpose with Sapient leaders based on global thinking and shared values of sustainability and equity.

The Sapient Leadership article concludes:

Along with the myriad challenges it brought, the singular realization of 2020 is that 3-D change is the new normal. Navigating perpetual, pervasive, and exponential change is the quintessential test of effective leadership in this era. Leaders, teams, and organizations that don’t skillfully navigate change will fail. Mastering this new reality requires fundamental enhancements to our collective capabilities.  (Chima &  Gutman, 2020).

Blue Marble Evaluators can be partners and guides in working with Sapien Leaders to navigate the perpetual, pervasive, and exponential change that is the quintessential challenge of the Anthropocene era.  Doing so will require mutual respect and trust. That is the essence of Blue Marble Evaluation facilitation to the leading edge.

Principle 2: Anthropocene as ContextPrinciple 12: Skin-in-the-Game

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