Trusting Employees Supports Better Performance, Research Finds

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Do employees who feel trusted have a greater sense of responsibility and give a better performance? A recent study finds compelling evidence that—at least in many cases—the answer is yes.

Sabrina Deutsch Salamon, associate professor of organizational behavior at York University in Toronto, Canada, and Sandra L. Robinson, professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, conducted a longitudinal study involving 88 retail stores in Canada. They found that, in stores where employees felt trusted, they were more likely to rise to managers’ expectations and perform better in terms of sales and customer service. Their research was published in the May 2008 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Defining and Measuring Effects of “Collective Felt Trust”

Robinson said there is a difference between employees’ trust in management (which has already been researched heavily) and the subject of her study, which is employees’ perception that their managers trust them—what Robinson and Salamon label “collective felt trust.” To help isolate the effects of “collective felt trust,” Robinson and Salamon controlled for the effects of employees’ trust in management.

“Work design” elements, which might shape employees’ perceptions of being trusted by management—such as training and surveillance—were relatively constant from store to store, Robinson noted, and therefore didn’t affect the results.

That the results varied from store to store despite work-design constancy—and after controlling for trust in management—suggests that the decisions and behavior of individual managers had significant influence, according to the study.

Robinson emphasized that the survey measured “collective felt trust,” not actual trust. It’s possible, in some cases, that managers trusted their employees more than the employees realized because trust wasn’t communicated effectively, she said.

Effectively Communicating Trust

Managers can communicate trust by giving employees the benefit of the doubt and encouraging them to use their own discretion in the absence of a formal procedure, Robinson said. It might be as simple as saying to an employee outright, “I trust you in this situation” or “Use your judgment.”

Likewise, it is important for managers to find ways to communicate that they’re “not keeping count” or micromanaging—“that they’re not watching employees like a hawk, basically,” Robinson said.

Robyn Odegaard, a doctor of organizational psychology and principal of Champion Performance Development in East Millstone, N.J., instructs managers in two basic behaviors to help them communicate their trust to employees:

Listen to understand, not just hear. Odegaard suggests managers use active listening—by paraphrasing what an employee has said and getting explicit confirmations of understanding. And they should approach employee discussions with the belief that employees’ ideas can be valid and useful.

Don’t play the blame game. “Too many managers seem to prefer berating their employees to make themselves look good rather than growing their employees to make themselves look good,” Odegaard said. Although employees must be held accountable for mistakes, managers need to support employees in figuring out what went wrong, how to fix it, and how to avoid it in the future.

Laying the Groundwork for Trust

Teaching managers to communicate trust that already exists might be easier than getting them to trust in the first place.

Although there are a few general principles, Robinson observed that “best practices” don’t really apply for gauging how much to trust employees. Judging how far to trust is “very context and relationship-specific.” In general, she recommends proceeding gradually, trusting employees in smaller matters first, and trusting in larger matters as employees prove themselves. Still, she tells managers, “No one knows your employees better than you do,” so there is no “one-size-fits-all” guidance on how to proceed.

Charles H. Green, MBA, strategy consultant and co-author of Trust-based Selling, agrees with the study findings about the vital importance of collective felt trust. He concurs with Robinson that “best practices” for exhibiting trust generally don’t work, and could be counterproductive.

Green’s corporate clients have asked him for incentives to get their managers to show more trust, but Green maintains that “the language of religion, or spirituality, or human interaction” is of more use in this realm. “If you try to train people to become less self-oriented, using the usual tools of the corporate world—incentives, appealing to self-interest—you will shoot yourself in the foot,” he said.

Instead, he advises teaching managers “intimacy and low self-orientation”—critical factors for learning to trust—by having them do role-play and other theater-based exercises and “public self-psychotherapy.” A facilitator can lead managers to discuss “what their fears are and how operating from fear ends up undercutting their goals—how operating in the short term is antithetical to the long term.” And, most importantly, they can learn and practice “how to take a risk in a conversation,” Green said.

Mapping Effects of Trust on the Brain

In Robinson’s study, managers’ trust in employees resulted in effects that were independent of employees’ trust in management. Andy Habermacher, managing director of NeuroBusiness Group in Boston, doesn’t dispute that finding, but he said that if employees trust management, then it’s natural for managers to be affected—to trust in turn. “Trust normally needs to be reciprocated to be truly felt,” he said.

“Emotions are contagious,” Habermacher said. He underscored the importance of one of the study’s observations: that having a few trusted employees and managers in key positions tends to create a “snowballing” effect.

Mistrust essentially equates to fear, Habermacher explained, which leads the brain to categorize people as “enemy.” Trust, on the other hand, is tied to feelings of safety and viewing people as “friends.” Given the way the brain functions, it’s not at all surprising that trust is imperative for high sales figures. “Trust gives you better brain functioning, and better feeling equals better performance,” he said.

Areas for Future Research

Although the study has relevance to workplaces that are “closer to the norm” (where trust hasn’t been compromised), Robinson acknowledged that “there’s really a boundary condition around the study” where situations of distrust are concerned. In workplaces with long-standing histories of distrust—for instance, where adversarial relationships exist between unions and management—Robinson said it’s extremely difficult to challenge the notion that trusting is “inappropriate.” Context is everything.

“Turning things around from distrust is really hard because everything is viewed through the lens of distrust,” she said. Academia has yet to understand what she terms “the distrust problem,” she added. In situations where distrust runs deep—even after mediation has been successful and solutions have been identified—distrust lingers. And if new people are hired, distrust can remain “because the role is still there,” Robinson said.

Odegaard agreed that “vertical trust” (between managers and employees) is important. However, she said that “horizontal trust” (between peers) is equally if not more important. “In my experience peers who trust each other will work better together and hold each other accountable to a higher standard,” she said. She would like to see research comparing vertical trust to horizontal trust as they relate to performance. As framed by Odegaard, such research would ask “Does one—horizontal or vertical trust—beget the other?” and “Is one more important than the other?”

Maria Williams is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va.