We all recognize the importance of trust. Without it we are cautious about relying on others. But it’s not just trust in their intentions and integrity that concerns us. We also need to trust their competence. When we are assured of their competence, we have confidence that they will act with efficacy and prudential judgment. We’re reluctant to place important matters in the hands of those whose competence we question.
Notice we're reflecting on the role of competence from the standpoint of what we have reason to expect from others – do we trust them? But it’s at least as important to consider this issue from the other’s point of view – do we give them reason to trust our competence?
Com·pe·tence: sufficiency; being functionally adequate, having sufficient knowledge, judgment, skill, or strength; also the legitimacy or validity of a conclusion, logical process, or point of view.
Competence – A Practical Virtue
On the one hand, competence conveys something “hard” and instrumental that we can rely upon, qualities we evaluate cognitively and objectively. We look for evidence as a means of evaluating its presence in a person or company with whom we are contracting. We appraise the worthiness of trusting others without perfect evidence. We must rely on judgment based on experience.
In interpersonal relations we make this appraisal informally, over time. It's what is meant when we speak of "building trust." We may be able to cite specific actions or patterns of skilled action that give us warrant to rely on others for competent performance. But consider this judgment for a moment. Isn’t it also something that we feel? Isn’t it something we more often feel intuitively than intellectually know?
So our cognitive appraisal of competence and the felt trust we have in the competence of others meld to produce an affirmative judgment. And it usually happens in a less formal manner in everyday life. This suggests that it’s not just instrumental skill or knowledge that guides our judgment. It's our judgment of their judgment (prudential and moral) that also enters into our considerations.
Care Adds Virtue to Competence
No matter whether our appraisals of competence are formal or informal, the judgment to trust the competence of others is informed, implicitly or explicitly, by a felt quality of care expressed by the other. An attitude of strict objectivity might convey indifference to our felt concerns about how things go, which may undermine our trust in a technically skilled other, especially if we have alternatives.
Therefore, whenever we are concerned about the felt experience of those affected by the actions we entrust to others, our trust in them will depend greatly on their expression of care. We might even say that there is an ethic of care that we look for in those we trust. We expect them to empathize with and honor what we care about.
So, if you want to be a trusted partner in your relationships with colleagues, customers, or suppliers, what are you doing to warrant their trust? We can demonstrate our technical skill and knowledge, but can we help them trust that we'll apply these capacities with the qualities of judgment and care that puts them at ease? If this is our goal, what does good look like?
These are questions you might wish to address afresh whenever asking for someone's business, and not just once at the front end, but along the way as you are delivering on our promises. Competence and care are a powerful pair when they travel together in the service of trust!