Trust at work

Experiential knowing is the basis for all forms of trust. Systems psychodynamics enables a systemic understanding of the conditions that lead to or inhibit trusting relations.

Trust at work

Contemporary workplaces tend to be flatter, more collaborative and more distributed and, as such, require leaders and managers to develop trusting relationships with staff and stakeholders. But how do we define trust? This article draws upon different models of trust at work, to develop an understanding of trust from a systems psychodynamics perspective.

How do we define trust?

Schein (2009), in his analysis of the social and psychological dynamics of helping relationships, proposes that people develop trust by helping each other, in turn increasing organisational effectiveness. Ancona and Bresnan (2007), drawing on years of research that examined teams across many industries, suggest the best way for a team to develop trust is to work together on a shared task. This is supported by research from Plotnick et al. (2009) who identified three dimensions of trust; personal, process and expertise, where personal trust is linked to experiential knowing and process trust relies on presentational knowing.

Personal trust


A form of trust linked to experiential knowing (learnt from direct lived experience) and based on the experience of other team members. 

Process trust


This form of trust relies on presentational knowing (the words, images and metaphors used to articulate experiential knowing, shaping it into a coherent, communicable form) and is based on inferences made from the experience of working with other team members

Expertise trust


This form of trust is based on a trustor’s judgement of the trustee’s experience

What does it mean to know?

To further investigate what it means to trust requires an exploration into ways of knowing. Heron and Reason (2007) advise that presentational knowing is underpinned by experiential knowing which, in turn, is the platform for all other forms of knowing. Rajagopalan and Midgely (2015), in their research on extending ways of knowing, develop this further and claim that formal and reflective thinking are inadequate on their own. They developed a four-part framework that describes ways of knowing, adding practical knowing to the three forms of knowing identified by Heron and Reason. The framework, comprising experiential, presentational, propositional and practical ways of knowing, is summarised below. 

Personal trust


Experiential knowing

A form knowing through participative, empathic resonance with an ‘other’, so that the knower is both attuned and distinct from the other

Process trust


Presentational knowing

A form of knowing that emerges from and is grounded in experiential knowing and reveals the underlying nature of things

Expertise trust


Propositional knowing



Practical knowing

A form of knowing carried by representational forms, expressed in statements and theories, and grounded in experiential knowing


A form of knowing how to do something, demonstrated in a skill or competence. It presupposes a conceptual grasp of theory, evident in presentational form and grounded in experiential knowing

Based on the work of Rajagopalan and Midgely (2015), I argue that experiential knowing is the basis for all forms of trust. As such, it can be explored through object relations theory (Klein, 1985) to understand relations between self and other. Further, in systems psychodynamics, the additional attention to group processes, system structure, processes and boundaries, and contextual elements enables a systemic understanding of the conditions that lead to or inhibit trusting relations.

Experiential knowing and the development of trust

A thesis by Harding (2006) proposes that, from a systems psychodynamic perspective, mutual relations are reliant on ‘good enough’ management of projective processes, as a pre or synchronistic condition. In mutual recognition, each person has a need for recognition and has the capacity to recognise the other in return. ‘The subject declares “I am, I do” and then waits for the response, “You are, you have done” (Benjamin, 1988, p. 21). Mutual recognition involves simultaneous connection and separation, creating a tension between recognising the other and asserting the self. Inherent in intersubjectivity is a fundamental paradox. Benjamin (1990) expresses it in this way:

In the very moment of realising our own independent will, we are dependent on another to recognise it. At the very moment we come to understanding the meaning of I, myself, we are forced to see the limitation of that self. At the moment when we understand that separate minds can share similar feelings, we begin to find out that these minds can also disagree (p. 39)

It is the now moment of ‘knowing and being known’ that brings coherence of wholeness to the system, increasing its capacity for complexity. Sander (2002) writes that the complementary structure of intersubjectivity and the subsequent move to mutual understanding results in power being dissolved rather than transferred back and forth in an endless cycle, and thus supports trust between self and others. This is in line with Sievers (2003), who writes that trust cannot be engineered, and instead, attention must be paid to the undercurrents of organisational life, such as uncertainty, hopelessness and despair.

Given that no two people ever see an event in the same way, Sievers argues that ‘the challenge is to learn new ways of creating trust between partners who do not necessarily share the same goals and values’ (p. 32). This is reliant on the creation of a reflective space (Krantz, 2013) to explore the group’s culture and unconscious dynamics, leading to mutual recognition and paving the way for trusting relations.

Systems psychodynamics provides a framework for understanding how trust is developed, however, the only way to ‘know’ the theory is to experience it. NIODA provides academic programs, workshops and group relations conferences which are designed to provide experiences which enable an exploration of the dynamics of trust.

Dr Nuala Dent
Academic Staff Member, NIODA

17 October 2019

Trust at work

ps Are you a leader or manager and would like to learn more about the dynamics of trust at work? Have a look at the NIODA Master of Leadership and Management (Organisation Dynamics) course.


Ancona D and Bresnan H. (2007) X-Teams: How to Build Team That Lead, Innovate and Succeed, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Benjamin J. (1988) The First Bond. The bonds of love: psychoanalysis, feminism, and the problem of domination. New York: Pantheon Book, p 11-50.

Benjamin J. (1990) An Outline of Intersubjectivity: The Development of Recognition. Psychoanalytic Psychology 7 (Supplement): 33-46.

Harding W. (2006) Intersubjectivity and Large Groups: A Systems Psychodynamic Perspective. Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship. Melbourne: Swinburne University of Technology.

Heron J and Reason P. (2007) Extending Epistemology within a Co-operative Inquiry. In: Reason P and Bradbury-Huang H (eds) The Sage Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and practice. ProQuest Ebook Central, SAGE Publications.

Klein M. (1985) Our adult world and its roots in infancy. In: Colam AD and Geller MH (eds) Group Relations Reader 2. Washington DC: A. K. Rice Institute.

Krantz J. (2013) Work Culture analysis and reflective space. In: Long S (ed) Socioanalytic Methods: Discovering the Hidden in Organisations and Social Systems. London, UK: Karnac Books, 23-44.

Plotnick L, Hiltz SR and Ocker R. (2009) Trust in Partially Distributed Teams. 30th International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS). Phoenix, AZ.

Rajagopalan R and Midgely G. (2015) Knowing Differently in Systemic Intervention. Systems Research and Behavioural Science 32: 546-561.

Sander LW. (2002) Thinking Differently Principles of Process in Living Systems and the Specificity of Being Known. Psychoanalytic Dialogues 12: 11-42.

Schein E. (2009) Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Sievers B. (2003) Against All Reason: Trusting in Trust. Organisational & Social Dynamics 3: pp 19-39.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This