One of the more bizarre facts one sees around Thailand is that people will live right next to the factory or store that they own. Clearly this is not accidental. There is a widespread (and accurate) feeling that for work to be done people need to feel that they are watched. The need to be watched makes work much less efficient, since supervision is not productive labor, and since it greatly limits the size of operations if people must be present to watch every site at all times.
It is curious to note the change in behavior of those in charge who are aware of Thai ways given the widespread practice of this custom. It must be widely known that Thais need to have constant supervision and people living right there in order to behave properly for such a system to endure. It suggests extremely low trust, the same sort of low trust that leads nations to view employers as censors of the political speech of their employees, or for employers to more generally monitor the internet usage of their workers. Where trust is lacking productivity must be lost in supervision, even if the hope is that this loss will be paid for by the greater productivity gains of those who only work well when supervised closely. Everything is a tradeoff.
We should note, though, that trust places a ceiling on success of an institution, a project, or a society. The need for constant supervision is greatly taxing, as it forces people to rebel in subtle ways. A lack of trust is contagious. If you act as if you don’t trust or respect others, they will return the favor. Some of us (myself included) are fairly ferocious and even occasionally spiteful about the way that we return the favor. Consider yourself warned. As a person who grew up in a low-trust environment it’s a matter that I’m very serious about.
But how does one go about building a high-trust culture? Trusting is an aspect of faith. For ordinary people to act in productive ways, they must see that hard work is repaid with honor and success. There must be a basic level of justice in economic and social dealings in order to encourage trust and hard work from the bottom up. All too often this is not the case, though. When people do not feel valued and appreciated, their work suffers as a result, especially if what is being asked is tedious and boring.
When the productivity of workers flags, though, it seems that instead of finding out what redesigns could make things better, that the automatic reply is to increase supervision, which reduces trust still further. It’s a shame that we have so few options in our toolbox when it comes to dealing with problems. It seems as if we are bent on self-destruction, willfully choosing ways of communication and interaction with others that over and over again produces conflict, strife, and problems. I do not exempt myself from this criticism; rather, I would not know this tendency if it was not so strongly manifest in myself.
Nonetheless, when we lack trust in others, we act in ways that lead other people to mistrust us, and we prevent the free flow of information, as well as of questions and suggestions and requests that would make life go easier. It appears as if we have thousands of years of experience in creating problems for ourselves and in hindering the building of harmonious relationships. Why do we never learn? Why do we let ourselves be mastered by our fears or pride or insecurity? It is hard to understand these matters, but when a factory manager moves in next door to his factory to make sure that his workers know they are being watched, one has reached a fairly low level of trust and ought to recognize that there are serious problems in the society that need to be resolved.
What are these problems? Do we have problems where birth so limits status that people have a hard time rising to the level of their competence or receiving credit where credit is due? Do we have a society where there is no respect between leaders and led and where exploitation of the masses is so common that those exploited have taken the only (and bad) options available to them, which are shirking and sabotage? Do we have a failure to recognize the common dignity and worthiness of all, in such a way that we build genuine communities instead of corrupt and power-hungry and competitive cliques as seems so common around the world? These are deep and dangerous matters, and worthy of considerable thought. What is sure, though, is that our level of trust for others, and the level of trust that others have for us, whether we are individuals or institutions or societies, marks a cap on our success that we cannot surmount until we have shown ourselves both more trusting and more trustworthy. How to do that is a difficult trick.