Trust is a topic that permeates nearly every aspect of our lives. Ask yourself the “5 W’s” of trust—who can I trust, what can I trust, when can I trust, where can I trust, and why should I trust—and you begin to understand how the concept can easily complicate our relationships. But, by understanding the benefits of trusting others and being trustworthy, you can help build relationships as well as increase productivity at work.
Since trust is such a broad concept, the best way to categorize it is by trust in institutions and trust in individuals. Institutional trust often involves businesses, governments, the media, or a combination of all three. British Petroleum’s oil spill off the Louisiana coast is an example of a breach of trust story that involves big business, the government and the media. Individual trust stories often explore how we trust particular leaders such as the president, teammates, family, friends and even one’s self.
In the company of strangers
To understand how we can trust, we first have to understand why we distrust. Two excellent business books about trust are Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002) and Steven M.R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust (2006). Lencioni’s leadership fable describes a leadership team within a company that struggles because of five dysfunctions: the absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results (p. 174). The five dysfunctions model has a familiar pyramid structure with absence of trust playing a major role in the dysfunction of relationships.
Trust starts at the top
The first relationship that you build at work, which can sometimes be the most dysfunctional, is the one with your boss. Our leaders are generally expected to be trustworthy. But, often the opposite is true, especially in highly public offices such as politics. Scholarly research on trust and leadership in organizations has focused on reaching a consensus on which characteristics typify a trustworthy leader. Butler’s 10 conditions of trust (1991, as cited in Clark & Payne, 2006) gives a checklist of what current and future leaders should keep in mind to become more trustworthy. The list includes openness, receptivity, availability, fairness, loyalty, promise fulfillment, integrity, competence, discreteness and consistency (Clark & Payne, p. 1163).
The key for top employees
While leadership plays a big role in credibility, the organization also factors heavily in employee trust. This is because of the effect of an organization’s psychological contract (as trust) on the employees’ performance and commitment to the company. A psychological contract is not a legal document, but a mental model held by employers and employees that define each party’s beliefs, expectations, perceived promises and terms of employment relationship as it evolves over time (Smithson & Lewis, 2003). These perceptions are often based on the “norm of reciprocity” (Gouldner, 1960, as cited in Bal, Chiraburu, & Jansen, 2010, p. 253). If the organization fails to meet its obligations within the psychological contract, the employee will reduce the intensity and commitment of his or her own discretionary effort and performance.
Top performers seem to be the group most affected by these psychological contracts. In Bal, Chiraburu, and Jansen’s study (2010), the reduction of effort and commitment was found to be far more significant among top performers. These top performers seemed to identify closely with the organization more than marginal or poor performers because the group who outperformed the others took more ownership of the success of the organization. This makes it imperative that organizations have initiatives that continue to build credibility so their top performers are proud of what they accomplish.
Building and maintaining trust is essential to the ongoing sustainability of relationships within an organization. When trust is strongly and continuously reinforced then productivity, satisfaction and opportunities for growth are maximized. In the absence of trust, discretionary effort and commitment are reduced and turnover is high. As the new economy and the changing marketplace evolve, achieving trust should be the goal of every organization.
Bal, P.M., Chiraburu, D.S., & Jansen, P.G.W. (2010). Psychological contract breach and work performance: Is social exchange a buffer or an intensifier? Journal of Managerial Psychology, 25(3), 252-273. Doi10.1108/02683941011023730
Clark, M.C., & Payne, R.L. (2006). Character-based determinants of trust in leaders. Risk Analysis, 26(5), 1161-1173. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.2006.00823.x
Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.