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This article was first published in the September 2019 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Ask most people and they would agree that trust matters in the workplace. Studies show that trust within organisations is strongly related to job performance; it is also positively correlated to the extent to which employees feel committed and loyal to their organisations.

In leadership and organisational research, trust is typically defined as the willingness of an individual or group (a trustor) to be vulnerable to the actions of another individual or group (a trustee) based on the expectation that the trustee will perform a particular action. Both trustor and trustee can be either one individual or a group of people. For example, we could think of you as a trustor and the degree to which you trust that your manager will develop your skills and prepare you for promotion. Alternatively, a chief executive could be a trustor and all of the managers within the executive team trustees – can they be trusted to support the CEO’s vision as opposed to seeking the CEO’s job?

An influential model developed by Roger Mayer and colleagues at the University of Notre Dame proposes that three characteristics determine trustees’ trustworthiness. The first is ability. In surveys measuring trust, this can be evaluated by asking trustors to rate their agreement with statements such as ‘The trustee is well qualified’ and ‘The trustee has the knowledge required to perform well in this job.’

The second characteristic is the trustee’s benevolence: the extent to which a trustee is believed to want to do good for the trustor. Benevolence is deemed present when trustors more strongly agree with statements such as ‘The trustee is concerned with my welfare’ and ‘The trustee really understands what is important to me.’

The third characteristic is integrity or the degree to which a trustee is perceived to behave in accordance with principles that the trustor finds acceptable. That the definition of integrity depends upon principles that a trustor finds acceptable suggests that integrity is not an absolute quantity. What matters is only that a trustor and trustee agree on similar principles.

Reflection and feedback

Understanding the characteristics or components of trustworthiness should be helpful to everybody – whether you’re a trainee or a seasoned executive. Begin by reflecting upon the three characteristics; seek feedback on colleagues’ perceptions of the extent to which they believe you possess them; and make concerted efforts to improve each of them. The more that colleagues trust you, the more they will be likely to offer you assistance as well as opportunities such as interesting work or promotions. However, developing trust is especially important for leaders who must not only demonstrate their ability, benevolence and integrity; they must develop high levels of these characteristics within team members so that they trust each other, too.

Data analysed by researchers led by the University of Florida’s Jason Colquitt showed that integrity mattered most in leader-employee relationships rather than between peers. The implication: leaders must work especially hard to demonstrate their integrity.

Separately, Bart de Jong and Tom Elfring of VU University Amsterdam recently conducted an in-depth investigation of trust within the tax department of an international consulting firm. Their results confirmed that levels of trust within teams predicted levels of team performance. This substantiates that trust isn’t just a ‘nice-to-have’ aspect of organisational life – it has real-world consequences.

In addition, the study found that one aspect of managerial style was particularly important. Managers who monitored employees in a suspicious manner with the intention of controlling them (eg punishing them for wrongdoing) tended to reduce trust and therefore team performance. In contrast, those who monitored performance with the goal of helping struggling employees were more successful at building trust and boosting team performance. In other words, monitoring is neither inherently positive nor negative: it is the intention behind it that either inspires or destroys trust.

Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace: