Can a better understanding of trust unlock the ‘black box’ of relational probation practice?

Published 17/06/2021
Author(s) Denis Sidebottom

Why be interested in trust?

Throughout our lives, most of us are taught that trust is important between people, whether that be in a romantic and/or work relationship. But what about people with convictions, the vast majority of whom, the evidence suggests, have had poor relationship and/or work role models? How do they view trust? What does trust mean to them? My interest in this notion of trust in probation practice was piqued whilst studying as a mature student during my undergraduate degree in criminology. It became clear from my reading that there was more to it than we realised. Perhaps if we could develop a deeper understanding of the role of trust in probation supervisor and service user relationships, we could help those working in the criminal justice system with their relational work.

Think about the centrality of the relationship between the service user and the probation practitioner. Yes, the ‘relationship’ is widely held to be at the very heart of the job (McCulloch, 2015). But why? Well, because this is where the key relational practice processes such as collaboration, cooperation, coproduction, and compliance are initiated, negotiated, and developed. But what makes all that tick or go awry? What are its nuts and bolts? What is central to the relationship being deemed a success or failure? I am convinced that part of the answer to these questions is the ‘special sauce’ of relational trust, that can both hold things together and help get stuff done. If we understood it better, and the positive role that it can play in the practitioner/service user relationship, then maybe it can be mobilised more effectively to improve desistance outcomes.

Why does trust matter between the probation supervisor and service user?

If we look at studies examining ‘quality’ in probation practice, they tell us that service users won’t actively participate in ‘relational work’ unless, or until, they trust the practitioner (Robinson et al., 2014). If they don’t, then practice processes like the negotiation and delivery of probation conditions, rigorous risk assessments, and the provision of social support services are more difficult to do. So, trust seems to be doing a lot of work in the relationship, but at the same time, how practitioners mobilise, negotiate, and develop trust or not with service users remains poorly understood, and too often neglected as an integral part of successful probation practice. I think that the role that trust plays in effective probation supervision represents a critical blind spot in current offender rehabilitation and desistance research. So much so, that I am now undertaking a doctoral study investigating the role of trust in the service user-practitioner relationship.

What do we currently know about trust?

Having read a lot of the literature in this area, the long story short is that trust, and how it operates in the probation context, is not well understood. What we do know is that placing our trust in someone else involves individual risk and vulnerability, and it’s not always easy, precisely because in trusting the other person we are taking a risk and leaving ourselves open to who we give our trust to. Neither can trust ever be taken, it requires consent, and to whom consent is given depends on situational and contextual conditions being met (Josang & Presti, 2004).

To illustrate, it is widely held that some individuals have a general propensity to trust others and conversely, there are individuals who have a general propensity to distrust others. But these are not opposites. What they are is an individual’s prior relationship experience(s) of similar relationships, situations and/or contexts, which then shapes their expectations and preferences in that specific situation and/or circumstance (Van Der Werff & Buckley, 2017; Constantino et al., 2012).

So, this results in people making assessments on whether to trust someone else from the very first encounter, and what we each look for in potential trustees is trustworthiness, which turns on individual characteristics such as competence, benevolence, and integrity (Colquitt et al., 2007). In simple terms, the explicit factors which affect our decision to trust or not, are the perceived legitimate use of another’s status and power to communicate their values/goals, both respectfully and non-judgementally, whilst simultaneously having positive regard for our own values and goals. So, trust develops as a result of positive exchanges of regard and esteem between both parties. This doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a staged process and it’s nuanced, complex, multifaceted, and multi-layered, and requires courtship, mobilisation, curation, cultivation, often repair, and continuous validation. In short, it’s complicated!

How does new research plan to address these gaps?

If I’m right, then building trusting relationships with service users involves sensitive, complex negotiations, undertaken in unique circumstances that necessitate personal risk to both the practitioner and the service user alike.

If we know more about the dynamics, mechanisms, and stages of these complex processes, then we would have a clearer picture of how the process of trust interrelates with the essential practice features of compliance, cooperation, collaboration and/or coproduction. It is this ‘inter-relation’ that my research study delves into, and whilst the main aim is to provide a deeper understanding of trust and its relationship with probation practice, it could also result in practitioners being better placed to understand, review, and consolidate these processes as an aid to goal attainment in the relational probation practice milieu.



Denis Sidebottom (Doctoral Researcher), Huddersfield University;



Colquitt, J.A., Scott, B.A. and LePine, J.A. (2007) ‘Trust, trustworthiness, and trust propensity: A meta-analytic test of their unique relationships with risk taking and job performance’. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(4):909.

Constantino, M.J., Ametrano, R.M. and Greenberg, R.P. (2012) ‘Clinician interventions and participant characteristics that foster adaptive patient expectations for psychotherapy and psychotherapeutic change’. Psychotherapy, 49(4):557.

Jøsang, A. and Presti, S.L. (2004, March) ‘Analysing the relationship between risk and trust’, in International Conference on Trust Management (pp. 135-145). Springer: Berlin, Heidelberg.

McCulloch, T. (2015) ‘Beyond compliance: participation, co-production and change in justice sanctions’. European Journal of Probation, 7(1):40-57.

Robinson, G., Priede, C., Farrall, S., Shapland, J. and McNeill, F. (2014) ‘Understanding ‘quality’ in probation practice: Frontline perspectives in England & Wales’. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 14(2):123-142.

Van Der Werff, L. and Buckley, F. (2017) ‘Getting to know you: A longitudinal examination of trust cues and trust development during socialization’. Journal of Management, 43(3):742-770.