#21 Predictability Is Better Than No Trust At All


In my first blog on trust I ended by stating that people focus too much on whether or not to trust, and not enough on how to trust.  Thinking of trust as having different faces reveals how to trust more effectively. By faces I mean different ways that trust presents itself to us, and ways we can make use of it. There are probably other faces, but these are five I have identified:






Fisher and Brown in their book Getting Together refer instructively to the relationship between caring and predictability in writing about the Cold War. They point out that the United States and the former USSR did not care about each other in a positive sense – quite the opposite, they were Cold War enemies. However, everything stayed in balance as long as each entity behaved itself. As long as each was predictable they could trust that the other was not engaged in some form of escalation or extension of influence.  They restrained their own behaviours in the interest of survival, basing the delicacy of the relationship on being relatively predictable so as not to alarm the other. In the context of the Cold War, they found each other trustworthy as long as each was predictable.


Quote on predictability by Gordon White: When you do anything in a consistent manner you are making yourself predictable and therefore easier to trust.


To have a workable relationship, or even resolve a dispute, there usually has to be some kind reliance on the other party, some form of trust. We usually associate trust with integrity and caring, and possibly competence.  But, the resolution of many disputes relies more heavily on the predictability face of trust than other qualities we often associate with it.

For example, written agreements arising from the resolution of a lawsuit are supported by predictability. The parties may not trust each other in any other way than agreeing to follow through on what is written down. The future of the relationship (or dissolution of relationship) is secured based on trusting the predictability of obligations for which there are legal remedies.

When you evaluate another person as lacking integrity or having less than positive intentions, don’t dismiss the possibility of a workable relationship or agreement.  Instead, ask yourself, “What possible arrangements could be crafted based on mutual predictability, or an exchange of predictable behaviour?”

Two managers who dislike each other and feel they cannot trust the integrity or competence of the other, may decide to consult each other before they take any significant actions that will influence the other’s operation. This consultation becomes a predictable action. They may also agree to make necessary decisions in person in a meeting room, thereby avoiding skirmishes at the doorways of each other’s offices. They create predictability in how they will interact with each other. The result is some mutual relief from the historical stresses of managing the relationship.

By setting the bar low and focusing on the predictability face of trust, they make a difficult relationship more workable. Ironically, if they are successful, trust based on integrity and competence will begin to grow; whereas, direct attempts to cultivate it would have failed.

A daily call with a co-parent you consider incompetent, if it can be arranged, may significantly reduce your anxiety. When you communicate, pay bills, return calls, keep records, or do anything in a consistent manner you are making yourself predictable and therefore easier to trust.

Trust is multi-faceted. You can’t always rely on integrity, competence, or caring.  You may not have to in order to produce a workable relationship with someone who is in some sense an enemy. Some agreed upon predictability to reduce mutual misery can be a positive way to move a difficult situation forward.

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4 Responses to #21 Predictability Is Better Than No Trust At All

  1. Thanks, Gordon. I remember several discussions over the years in response to the question of whether one could mediate (or negotiate collaboratively) in the absence of trust. My initial response was usually that people seeking mediation was usually a sign that trust had broken down – and that trust wasn’t necessary.

    I also recall chatting with our former rocket scientist colleague (TN), who would often frame his mediation work as “given that you don’t trust each other, but have to work together, how can we negotiate “terms of engagement” that will allow you to work together?” He often found that as the parties honored the “terms of engagement”, they built trust. I think this reinforces the theme of your blog on predictability.


    • Gordon White says:

      Hi Gary,
      Yes, I concur with what you say. Thank you for pulling some threads together. Part of good mediation may be the ability to help parties face what is not there and then help them to compensate for it.
      Thank you for your comment.

  2. Dan Bruiger says:

    Predicting the course of natural phenomena assumes that nature cannot act on whim, does not have free will, and does not “calculate” its responses to our interventions. None of these can be assumed about human beings. Yet, the famous computer program “Tit for Tat” demonstrated that long-term optimal payoffs in “prisoner dilemma” type games are achieved by responding in kind with a measure of good faith thrown in. [Robert Axelrod “The Evolution of Cooperation” 1984]. In other words, (1)give your opponent one free betrayal and then do unto them as they do to you; (2)repeat cycle.

    • Gordon White says:

      Hi Dan,

      Thank you for your comment. I have read second hand account of Axelrod’s work several times. I believe he might have explored how cooperation between species evolved because it was found to be advantageous. In your mind what are the implications that optimal human behaviour can be (on the average) predicted? In ‘The Truth about Trust’ De Steno writes that for an individual, a statistical average is not good enough. We want to know if the person we are encountering should be trusted by us right now!

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