Mutual Trust in the Workplace: Is it Overrated?

It is well documented that employee trust in managers leads to an increase in job performance and a decrease in undesirable outcomes, such as intentions to leave the organization. Researchers are just beginning, however, to examine two related phenomena: the effects of manager trust in employees, and of mutual trust.

In a recent study,¹ researchers hypothesized that employees whose managers trust them will exhibit the same positive patterns of behavior that exist when the trust relationship is reversed. These outcomes will occur for different reasons, however. They also suggested that mutual trust, defined as the same level of trust by manager and subordinate, would result in an even higher level of performance than one-sided trust.

In general, the hypotheses about mutual trust were not supported. Instead, the results led researchers to speculate that uneven levels of trust between manager and subordinate might backfire. For example, if managers grant greater amounts of autonomy to trusted subordinates who do not reciprocate that level of trust, the employees may perceive the managers' efforts at empowerment as attempts to "off-load" work on them. It's also possible, however, that the low occurrence of mutual trust present in the research sample may have influenced the results. So the answer to the question of whether mutual trust is overrated is "maybe."

This study does provide meaningful evidence that being trusted is a significant predictor of employee work outcomes. Specifically, it demonstrates that when their managers trust them, employees will exhibit better task performance, are more likely to engage in organizational citizenship behaviors (i.e., to go above and beyond what their jobs require), and are less likely to leave the organization than workers who are not trusted.

Here are my recommendations for managers based on the findings of this study:

  1. Set consistent expectations for all employees. Acting on the natural tendency to set higher expectations of trusted employees could result in poorer performance by non-trusted employees, of whom less is expected.
  2. Take the initiative to give trust even if you are unsure it is well-founded. Sometimes you must give trust in order to get it.
  3. Work at both giving and receiving trust. There are important performance- related benefits at stake. Be patient: trust is built up over time.

While assumptions about the benefits of mutual trust have not been proven or disproved, what is clear is that trust in the manager and being trusted by the manager both are significant predictors of important employee work outcomes.

¹Brower, H.H., Lester, S.W., Korsgaard, M.A., & Dineen, B.R. (2009). A closer look at trust between managers and subordinates: Understanding the effects of both trusting and being trusted on subordinate outcomes. Journal of Management, 35(2), 327-347.

Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. Pat can show you how to apply relevant research findings in practical ways to create immediate results in your organization. Contact us today to see how we can help you make a difference!

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