Trust Me: Here’s the Truth about Trust

Blindfolded woman shooting arrows past a nervous manBack when “team building” was the hottest fad in management, no activity garnered as much derision as “trust falls.” The self-proclaimed team builder would have the team gather behind one member and ask that person to fall backwards, trusting their peers to catch them. The ridiculous, and much-ridiculed, idea was that somehow not letting another human crack their head on the floor would improve teamwork. Despite it becoming the butt of movie jokes, having no proof of benefit, and running counter to what psychologists told us about how trust develops, many kept right on making money off it.

I taught, instead, that trust can only develop over time through repeated positive interactions with someone, within the environment where trust is needed. An article I came across recently from the Journal of Management bears this out. It reported on a meta-analysis, a quantified study of all studies on a topic. This is the best kind of evidence to apply in your workplace, because its conclusions are drawn from a wide range of circumstances and thus likely apply to yours. This meta-analysis combined the data from all 375 studies on workplace trust published in 20 scientific journals over 12 years.

Two basic definitions of trust emerged from the research:

  • “positive expectations of trustworthiness,” meaning “expectations about the trustee’s intention and being able to rely on the trustee.”
  • “willingness to accept vulnerability,” which is the “decision to take risk and to depend on the trustee.”

We’ll start with something the 1990s team builders mostly got right: Trust has a lot of positive benefits for a company. It “increases employees’ job satisfaction, organizational identification, cooperative employment relations, (and) intention to stay,” the studies say. For easier reading, I remove citations from within these quotes.

“Collective perceptions that the organization is trustworthy can promote OCBs at the organizational level,” according to the article. OCBs, “organizational citizenship behaviors,” are extra tasks done for the org by someone that are not required by their job. “Organizational trust… has also been found to increase alignment of objectives within the organization and its adaptability (e.g., ability to respond quickly to market changes, to mitigate the risk that human resource practices become dysfunctional).” Trust can also reduce employee-management conflicts. This might be because in some cases, people judged another person’s behavior more positively if they trusted them. That is, it promotes giving someone the benefit of the doubt.

When individuals in the company trust each other, that reduces resistance to organizational change and to talking about ethics, the studies found. Members are much freer with exchanging information, so the firm’s collective knowledge goes up. The studies found people who trust their peers are more willing to communicate in general, cooperate, and seek and follow advice. All of that might explain why their performance is higher, too.

One surprise was that no link was found between trusting your boss and being a better worker. However, “trust in leaders is related to attitudinal outcomes such as satisfaction with the leaders, (higher) ratings of leadership effectiveness, job satisfaction, and reduced uncertainty at work” as well as willingness to take risks. So gaining your employees’ trust may not raise their performance ratings, but it could raise yours!

I was also surprised to learn there has been little research about members’ trust in their teams, or collective trust by teams in leaders or other groups. What there is indicates if team members trust their teams, it links to higher satisfaction with the team and proactive problem-solving. Group trust in leaders seems to correlate with positive financial outcomes. Those few studies also showed team-wide trust “to increase team-level satisfaction with the team, information sharing, team learning, team member autonomy and task interdependence, team affective commitment, and team OCB and performance,” plus, in interdependent teams, better decision-making.

So, as leaders, how do we get all this good stuff? To increase an individual’s trust in the organization, managers must display competence, benevolence, integrity, corporate social responsibility, and justice, the studies show. This suggests you need to train your managers in supervision skills and ethics, and I don’t mean just annual slide shows. As I was saying 20 years ago, the article reports “repeated interactions that are characterized by timeliness, honesty, and empathy from organizations” precede trust. For anyone I was training back then who is still reading, I told you so!

Your human resources policies must be “fair, transparent, and coherent,” these 375 studies indicate. “For shared organizational trust (by) coworkers, research has shown the positive effects of relational and commitment-based practices and policies, such as a relationship-oriented culture that focuses on promoting positive relations among employees, informal meetings, and development of employee competence,” the article says. In general, institute a package of progressive policies known as high-performance work systems. Set up your performance and compensation systems to encourage cooperation instead of competition, by rewarding team goals and teamwork skills more than individual performance.

Gaining a team’s trust is easier through servant or inspirational leadership, taking leaps of faith in the team, frequent interactions, and timely and open communications. “Trust falls” did not make the list.

To get others to trust you as an individual, keep learning, because the article says ability matters. Also provide one-on-one support and volunteer to help people get their work done. Practice justice and fairness, the article says, meaning I’m sure the positive, benevolent senses of those words (not punishment). Your reputation plays a role, the studies say. Yet again, smooth and positive interactions raise trust, as does giving explanations. Face-to-face communication is better than online or phone to establish trust, though the difference diminishes over time.

Not surprisingly, the in-group/out-group thing contributes. Various kinds of similarity with the individual, and membership in the same networks or communities, automatically grants you some trust.

Okay, but let’s say you don’t care about any of that, and you don’t want anyone to trust you! Don’t worry, science has answers for you, too. “Organizational characteristics such as ongoing organizational changes, the extent to and the length in which an organization uses temporary workers, and perceived politics in organizations (i.e., manipulative behaviors) have been negatively related to trust in organizations,” the study says. Other trust killers are “not having career growth or a friendly work environment,” it says. To reduce trust with employees, insist on binding contracts and high levels of monitoring, as in micromanagement. If you’re wondering how that relates, look back at the definitions: To develop trust, both sides must take a risk and see how it goes.

At the team level, geographical and cultural distance, virtual communications, and relationship (but not task) confrontations all reduce trust. Yet again I say, it is almost impossible to create a “global team,” and conflict is not good.

To repair trust, make “timely and sincere apologies,” show repentance, promise to change your behavior, and provide compensation voluntarily, not necessarily money. This won’t work if you are “perceived to have caused the harm intentionally” and were forced to pay up, the article says.

The hardest part of establishing trust is recognizing in ourselves those behaviors that reduce it. We all want to believe we are competent and fair and consistent. Managers and companies that want trust and all of its benefits have to find ways to get outside perspectives on their behaviors, such as 360-degree performance appraisals and peer mentors. Real trust-building efforts, like real team-building efforts, require a lot more work and honesty than the occasional exercise. But clearly there is much to gain in return.

Thanks to this study’s pile of evidence, you don’t have to trust me on that.


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Source: Fulmer, C. Ashley, and Michele J. Gelfand (2012), ‘At What Level (and in Whom) We Trust: Trust across Multiple Organizational Levels’, Journal of Management, 38.4, 1167–1230

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