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Management for the masses: How do employees develop trust in supervisors?

Indiana University Kelley School of Business  8.31.10Researchers in management define trust as the “willingness to be vulnerable to another person.” In the workplace, this has many important practical implications. When workers trust their supervisors, they behave as if they are going to be rewarded and treated fairly even in times of uncertainty – meaning they keep performing well even when things are new or unclear. On the other hand, employees who do not trust their managers treat new workplace programs with suspicion, and may even withhold effort until they see exactly how a new policy will affect them. Trust has been defined as the “glue” that holds a workplace together, since it represents employees’ willingness to take chances and exercise judgment.

But how do employees develop trust in their supervisors? A recent study confirms that trust develops over time, and specifically comes about as workers both watch their supervisors interact with others and experience that manager’s words and actions toward themselves. Specifically, this study indicated that workers look generally for two things in their managers: integrity and benevolence. Integrity is “doing the right thing” in every situation. When employees see their managers cut corners in dealing with customers or suppliers, for example, their trust in that manager generally will decline. Benevolence is acting in the best interest of employees. This doesn’t mean giving in to employee demands, but demonstrating that the supervisor has the best interests of workers in mind while making decisions.

This study also found that managers who act inconsistently are viewed less favorably, meaning that employees learn to distrust in the same way they learn to trust. In fact, perceptions of distrust tend to be more dramatic, better remembered, and harder to overcome than those of trust. (As my grandfather said, it takes time for people to trust you, but just a moment for them to lose that trust.) And, since most workers view their supervisors as the primary conduit to the organization, their overall level of trust in the company is strongly affected by the trust they feel for their particular manager.

Finally, these researchers also discovered that trust in a supervisor makes employees more satisfied with their jobs. Satisfied employees generally don’t leave companies, and also tend to give more effort in their job tasks.

So managers who want to develop trust in their subordinates should do these things:

  1. Demonstrate ethical behavior in all facets of work. Employees evaluate their managers in all situations, whether or not they directly relate to employment.
  2. Be consistent. Good behavior on one day doesn’t “make up” for bad behavior on another – what is important is a pattern of trustworthy behavior over time.
  3. Be explicit about motives when dealing with workers. Don’t assume that subordinates know you have their best interests at heart. Explain why you implement various policies, and how they will benefit your best workers.

Gilstrap, J. B., & Collins, B. J. (2012). The importance of being trustworthy: Trust as a mediator of the relationship between leader behaviors and employee job satisfaction. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 19, 152-163.

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