Who Do You Trust?
  • Behaviour

Who Do You Trust?

5 cues that inspire a manager’s leap of faith to trust an employee


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A culture of trust is key to building successful organizations. Employees need to trust their bosses, and most of the headlines in this area concern the (un)trustworthiness of bosses. However, bosses’ ability to form high-trust relationships with their employees is also fundamental to attaining a culture of trust. So, it is important for us to understand the dynamics that cause them to trust or mistrust their staff.

Trust in bosses or interpersonal trust within teams are subjects often discussed, but how managers come to trust employees has hardly ever been investigated. Now, new research from Prof. Dr. Antoinette Weibel of the University of St. Gallen and colleagues looks at the trust between manager and employee - the basic building block of an organizational trust culture.

In the days of ‘command and control’, trust between supervisor and staff may have figured less, but in progressive modern organizations, that feature empowerment and decentralization of decision rights, it is crucial.  

While the need for trust is obvious, the psychological drivers that cause people to trust are complex. Choosing to trust or mistrust an employee is rarely based on clear insight or hard facts, in fact it largely involves a ‘leap of faith’. In their research, Weibel and colleagues investigate what makes managers trust their employees assuming the leap of faith is taken to be the irrational touchstone for high-trust interpersonal relationships to emerge.

Using expert-interviews the researchers look ‘inside the managers’ heads’ to follow the paths managers take for trusting relationships to emerge, and reveal five cues that stimulate high-trust relationships:

1/ Managers’ expectations of an employee’s trustworthiness

Managers dare to take a leap of faith, due to: first an assessment of an employee’s competence and reliability in meeting his/her goals and responsibilities; secondly based on an evaluation of perceived integrity - which may either arise from the employee living up to what she/he promises or from a shared understanding of what is considered 'right' and 'wrong' in life; finally, perceived employee benevolence serves as a driver for a manager’s leap of faith.

2/ Personal disposition to trust

Another driver originates from a manager’s personality: his or her personal disposition to trust, which is a stable personality trait and refers to a general willingness to trust others and influences trust decisions over and beyond positive expectations.

3/ Institutional and structural factors

Organizational context, which affects feelings stemming from risk, uncertainty and position in the hierarchy, in turn affects how trust relationship are formed. Context can also reduce the complexity of decisions, enabling decisions to happen ‘with a safer feeling’. These feelings of security can either originate from perceptions of normality or from structural assurances: i.e. high-trust relationships may emerge because managers perceive the trust situation to be ‘normal’, or because guarantees, regulations or a legal recourse mitigate perceived risks.

4/ Manager’s decision-making errors

A manager’s leap of faith may also be driven by a fallacious belief that a person who has randomly succeed in one area or shown some satisfying behaviour will be therefore continually trustworthy elsewhere. These cues mirror a trust process, within the context of a manager’s day-to-day business, whereby trusting happens due to a positive ‘recency’ effect or from a false cost-benefit calculus.

5/ Motivational cues to trust

Finally, the research distinguishes between extrinsic and intrinsic motivational cues for managers to engage in high-trust relationships. Extrinsic motivation is present, if managers show a leap of faith for the sake of personal ease or for reduced workload. Intrinsic motivation is when the leap of faith is motivated by the need of relationship satisfaction with the employee, or by the content of the relationship (e.g. trusting is fun and fulfilling by itself).

Read the research Paper: ‘Touchstone of Trust inside Organizations: Antecedents of high-trust manager-employee relationships’, Antoinette Weibel, Simon Daniel Schafheitle, and  Guido Möllering, 2016.

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