Only actions that are voluntary build mutual trust. In an organization, if someone engages only in "instrumental" communication; that is, communication that is required for work to get done, nothing of the character of the person communicating is revealed. By contrast, conversation, stories, and other expressive means of communication reveal something of the underlying character of the communicator. In this way, a more extensive mental model of the communicator can be built; mutual trust can result.

Here is the text of a short paper on this subject:

The Necessity of Expressive Communication in Organizations

John C. Thomas and Wendy A. Kellogg
IBM T. J. Watson Research Center
PO Box 218
Yorktown Heights, NY 10598

Communication is central to any complex, modern organization. Instrumental communication is necessary to accomplishing tasks related to organizational goals. Expressive communication is communication in which individuals or teams are primarily motivated by personal goals such as sharing experiences.

Instrumental communication is typically supported by specific forms and media; e.g., job offers, requisitions, ratings, invoices, RFP's, contracts, formal award certificates, etc. are all expected to be created in similar formats, delivered in specific contexts, and need to include specific information. Expressive communication includes hallway conversations, informal joint design meetings, stories, notes scrawled on congratulatory cards or napkins, and e-mail about non-business issues. While it may be tempting to equate instrumental communication with explicit knowledge and expressive communication with tacit knowledge, it is not the same distinction.

An organization that limits itself, by policy or culture, to instrumental communication is in danger if unanticipated conditions arise. In Aries de Gues's (1996) classic study on the longevity of large organizations, he found that mutual trust was a strong characteristic of long-lived organizations. In Robert Putnam's (1993) study of various local regions and governments in postwar Italy, he also found that mutual trust, facilitated by various informal groups, clubs, and associations, was an excellent predictor of future economic growth.

Instrumental communication may inform about a person's competence and reassure us that the person follows the organizational rules. Character, however, is revealed by choices under pressure (McKee, 1997). But, in a well-structured organization, instrumental communication minimizes choice; hence, it is difficult to learn about someone from purely instrumental communication.

On the other hand, if a person tells a story about themselves, has social conversation, or participates in creative design sessions, they will inevitably reveal something about themselves. Over time, we learn something about another person and may come to trust them. In fact, there is some evidence that people prefer people who use more expressive means of communication, even in organizational settings (Thomas, 1983). This may be one reason why effective leaders turn to story (Armstrong, 1992; Gardner, 1996).

The importance of mutual trust in coworkers may not be evident if people in an organization are all following a procedure that works. However, in times of change or breakdown, mutual trust will allow collaborative effort to proceed toward organizational (as opposed to individualistic, locally optimized) goals. Looked at another way, what expressive communications allow people to do is build up a more complete and complex model of others so that there will be a basis for behavioral prediction in novel situations requiring conjoint but not pre-choreographed action.

While stories and other forms of expressive communication have the capability of building mutual trust, they also have the capability of reducing mutual trust. Stories in the context of a voluntary entertainment experience create their own frame. But stories told in the context of an organization will not be simply "accepted" but viewed against the backdrop of the current context and if the story told is too discrepant from actual behavior, one result will be less trust, not more (Thomas, 1999).

Expressive communication is not a sufficient condition to build mutual trust; however, it may be necessary. Hence, the design of knowledge management systems would do well to support expressive communications as well as instrumental ones if they are to support organizations that thrive in times of change as well as stability. Some recent designs seem to be moving in this direction (Thomas, 1999; Erickson, Smith, Kellogg, Laff, Richards., and Bradner, 1999). In this paper, we will focus on some of the design considerations of systems that support expressive as well as instrumental communication.

Armstong, D. Managing by storying around. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

De Gues, A. The living company. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1997.

Erickson, T., Smith, D. Kellogg, W., Laff, M., Richards, J. and Bradner, E. Socially translucent systems: social proxies, persistent conversation and the design of "Babble." In Human Factors and Computing Systems: The Proceedings of CHI '99. New York: ACM Press, 1999.

Gardner, H. Leading minds: An anatomy of leadership. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

McKee, R. Story. New York: Harper/Row, 1997.

Putnam, R.D., Leonardi, R., Nanetti, R. Making democracy work: civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

Thomas, J. C. Studies in office systems I: The effect of communication medium on person perception. Office Systems Research Journal (2): 75-88, 1983.

Thomas, J. C. Narrative technologies for the new millennium, Knowledge Management, 2(9), 14-17, 1999.

Back to Pattern Language

Back to Welcome Page