• Managing people

Trust in Decision Makers

The surprising way people react to the fairness of decisions vis-à-vis their trust in the decision makers


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In an unfair world not all decisions we make as leaders can be fair or be perceived to be fair. We assumed however that decisions even unfair ones will be better accepted if the decision makers are trusted. Research from Matthias Seifert Professor of Decision Sciences at IE business School and colleagues, slightly contradicts this by showing that trusted managers making unfair decisions can significantly alter their relationships with their employees.

Not only do people react differently to decisions based on what they perceive was the fairness of the decision making procedure and its outcome, but their reaction is also significantly influenced, according to this research, by the level of trust in the decision makers. The level of trust sets expectations about both outcome and procedural fairness.

If employees trust a manager, they are more likely to see both the outcome and the process of his or her decision as being fair. In their minds, the ultimate decision is consistent with their expectations. This consistency effect occurs in a negative situation as well: If people don’t trust a decision maker, and they see both the outcome and the process as being unfair, they will react minimally to the decision — it was, after all, consistent with their expectations of the untrusted decision maker.

However, if people believe a trusted decision maker has engaged in outcome and procedural unfairness, they will have a significant negative reaction to the ultimate decision. (The reaction will be less extreme if the decision was based on only outcome unfairness or only procedural unfairness; it the combination of both outcome and procedural unfairness that draws the sharp reaction.)

On the other hand, if people realize that a mistrusted decision maker has proceeded with outcome and procedural fairness, they will have a significant positive reaction to the ultimate decision.

In their surveys, the researchers measured the reaction to the decision in terms of organizational commitment — a positive reaction leading to increased commitment, a negative reaction leading to decreased commitment. When expectations were met the level of organizational commitment changed little. Organizational commitment plunged, however, in reaction to outcome and procedural unfairness from a trusted decision maker. The reverse was also true: organizational commitment skyrocketed in reaction to outcome and procedural fairness from a mistrusted decision maker.

This research emphasizes the role that trust plays and how trust alters expectations, perceptions and reactions. Specifically, mistrusted executives may not be aware of the vicious circle in which they are spinning, and in which their decisions are expected to be negative and more quickly perceived as negative.

The research shows, however, that there is a way out, thanks to the overly positive response to a mistrusted decision maker who surprises with outcome fairness or favourability and procedural fairness. The reverse is also true: trusted decision-makers who stumble with outcome and procedural unfairness can suddenly find themselves in the vicious circle. Trusted managers should thus be cautious not to let an unfair decision significantly alter their relationships with their subordinates.

Access the research paper here: Trust in Decision-Making Authorities Dictates the Form of the Interactive Relationship Between Outcome Fairness and Procedural Fairness. Matthias Seifert, Joel Brockner, Emily C. Bianchi & Henry Moon. Personality and Social Psychology (January 2015).

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