In this month’s column I’ll reflect on why and how trust matters in the field of organisational management. Let us as ever start with a definition – what is trust? According to Rousseau et al. (1998, p. 395) trust is “a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another”. More simply in terms of organisational management, Zand (1972, p. 238) conceptualises ‘trust as behavior that conveys appropriate information, permits mutuality of influence, encourages self-control, and avoids abuse of the vulnerability of others’. From these definitions we can see that the two antecedents necessary for trust to exist are a preparedness to be vulnerable and an absence of negative consequences as a result.
Trust is important to us in personal relationships, in education, in work, in politics and in almost every aspect of how we live our lives. And yet we seem to be living in a world where little is to be trusted, where facts are undermined at every turn and where we are perpetually finding that what we believed in, was ‘shady’ as my students might put it.
And what happens when trust is undermined? Lack of trust stimulates defensive behaviour in others in response, avoidance, suspicion, reluctance to invest in or believe in new ideas, unwillingness to ‘put your head above the parapet’ and dissimulation. Particularly importantly, lack of trust results in a world where all future communications tend to be regarded with scepticism and cynicism. In organisational relationships with a low level of trust, information exchange will be very poor in both directions, both from management to staff and vice versa. The result will be little cohesion in the solving of problems or working together towards a mutual goal. In such a world issues often remain unidentified and unresolved and, although such critical flaws may seem invisible and can go undetected for some time, they will eventually result in fatal damage to the fortunes of the organisation as a whole.
There is a good deal of evidence of the ways in which trust can strengthen organisations and groups, as well as ways in which its lack damages them. It is not simply a matter of creating a feel good factor. Zand’s early but seminal research (1972, p.232-3) found that ‘an increase in trust will increase the exchange of accurate, comprehensive, and timely information. Problem-solving groups with high trust will: (H1) exchange relevant ideas and feelings more openly; (H2) develop greater clarification of goals and problems; (H3) search more extensively for alternative courses of action; (H4) have greater influence on solutions; (H5) be more satisfied with their problem-solving efforts; (H6) have greater motivation to implement conclusions; (H7) see themselves as closer and more of a team; and (H8) have less desire to leave their group to join another’.
For those who have experienced their trust being misplaced, the overwhelming feeling is one of a future of at best precarious uncertainty: ‘I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you’ (Friedrich Nietzsche). Your staff and customers don’t want to work for or do business with an organisation they cannot trust. We want to work with, to engage with, to be with people we can trust.
Building trust is good for business too: as Gounaris (2005, p.128) notes ‘the more the client trusts the service provider, the more affectively committed to the provider the customer becomes’. Trust is at the heart of all good customer service; when it is lost, that customer or client’s business is often forever lost too. And in today’s world of rapid consumer communication of product and service intelligence, a swathe of associated customer business may also be lost. It is why companies who care little for repeat business invest so little in customer service and happily serve you substandard products. When you’re in St Mark’s Square in Venice your waiter knows he will likely never see you again and clearly doesn’t care if your experience is a good one or not. It’s why your hairdresser (if you are very lucky) tells you when the colour you’ve selected is a bad choice and even manages to do so sensitively. For trust is not strengthened by avoiding harsh truths but by being thoughtful in communicating them and both parties trusting each other’s honesty and respect. When trust in a provider is lost, no future marketing or media campaigns can redress that, however sophisticated or costly.
Ultimately trust is a necessary prerequisite of commitment, whether to a provider or an employer, but in particular in the formation of what Gounaris (2005) terms ‘affective commitment’ in contradistinction from ‘calculated commitment’ where there is an underlying monetary advantage to the customer of maintaining loyalty. If an organisation or leader can build affective commitment then that will remain true even in circumstances which are challenging, in ‘the bad times and the good’.
Trust is built upon openness, veracity and mutual sharing of issues. It is destroyed by duplicity, lack of candour and double dealing. Avoidance of hard truths does not encourage trust, as argued by Eric Sevareid, author and newscaster, it is ‘better to trust the man who is frequently in error than the one who is never in doubt’. Trust is fluid, it can ebb and flow as factors in one’s context change and new information emerges. It is, however, questionable if trust can genuinely be rebuilt once it is lost: the very language of trust is about creation and loss suggesting how deeply an emotive issue it is for most of us.
Overall research suggests that charismatic leadership behaviours and attitudes can encourage trust in team leaders. But of course trust is a complex phenomenon and can vary throughout any organisation at different levels, ‘at the team level (i.e., between team members), leadership level (i.e., between the team member and the leader), the organizational level (i.e., between the employees and the organization), and interorganizational level (i.e., between organizations)’ (Burke et al. 2007, p.610). Mayer, Davis and Schoorman have carried out seminal and influential work in this field (1995 and 2007), arguing that trust is constructed through our experience of relationships and that it is an essential precursor to trust that leaders are seen as possessing ‘ability, benevolence, and integrity’.
And of course ‘people follow leaders they trust. Without trust at best you get compliance’ (Blanchard and Stoner, 2011).
Blanchard, K., & Stoner, J. (2011). Full steam ahead!: unleash the power of vision in your work and your life. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Burke, C. S., Sims, D. E., Lazzara, E. H., & Salas, E. (2007). Trust in leadership: A multi-level review and integration. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(6), 606-632.
Ferrin, D. L. and Dirks, K. T. (2002) Trust in Leadership: Meta-Analytic Findings and Implications for Research and Practice. (2002). Journal of Applied Psychology. 87, (4), 611-628. Research Collection Lee Kong Chian School of Business. Available at: http://ink.library.smu.edu.sg/lkcsb_research/675
Gounaris, S. P. (2005). Trust and commitment influences on customer retention: insights from business-to-business services. Journal of Business research, 58(2), 126-140.
Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H., and Schoorman, F. D. (1995). An integrative model of organization trust. Academy of Management Review, 20, 709−734.
Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S., & Camerer, C. (1998). Not so different after all: A cross-discipline view of trust. Academy of management review, 23(3), 393-404.
Schoorman, F. D., Mayer, R. C., & Davis, J. H. (2007). An integrative model of organizational trust: past, present, and future. Academy Of Management Review, 32(2), 344-354.
Zand, D. E. (1972). Trust and Managerial Problem Solving. Administrative Science Quarterly, 17(2), 229-239.