Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 68
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Building Trust

Recent discoveries on trust offer new ways to influence it.

Think back to your drive to work this morning and raise your hand if you decided to build a little trust before lunch.

Silly question, you say. Trust isn't something you decide to build, it just happens. Good people win others' trust and bad people are distrusted. Or is it that simple?

What if you knew certain things to do which would increase others' trust, and other things to avoid doing which would decrease trust? Would that help you get better cooperation from employees and sell more of your products?

Trust is surprisingly important if you consider its influence as people make decisions. Your own experience buying cars and houses and loaning money should convince you. "I did it because I trusted him," is an often-heard phrase; and trust can develop in a single meeting, for example, when making a major purchase. How does it happen?

Daniel McAllister, of Georgetown University, examined trust in his doctoral dissertation. He studied 175 pairs of managers from a wide variety of firms, each from different functional areas in their companies. They had significant contact with each other, and they varied in the amount of trust they felt. McAllister examined their patterns of behavior and compared them to their expressions of trust. He also compared them to performance assessments by their superiors.

McAllister first learned that trust is actually made up of two components: trust based on competence and reliability, and trust based on caring and concern. You can inspire one form of trust without inspiring the other, and people react differently depending upon the kind of trust they feel. It's also possible to inspire both kinds of trust.

Next, he examined competence-based trust and looked for patterns leading people to feel it, but most of his findings were negative. Superior credentials and cultural and ethnic similarity didn't inspire it, and positive performance assessments didn't do it either. The only factor reliably leading to this form of trust was a reputation for competence. People needed to impress many colleagues of their competence before inspiring genuine competence-based trust in anyone!

McAllister next examined caring-based trust and found what he expected. Those helping others without regard to their own interests inspired this form of trust, especially if they had frequent contact. People reacted to caring-based trust with caring behaviors of their own, and superiors watching it all formed higher performance impressions of managers who were "good citizens" for their colleagues.

But then it got a little murky for Professor McAllister.

When managers felt caring-based trust for other managers and closely monitored their needs, superiors tended to form lowered impressions of competence for the managers being watched. One of two things must be true: Either managers tended to pick out struggling colleagues to watch, reflected in these lowered assessments, or executives noticed this monitoring and used it as a marker to label certain managers as less competent than others.

This latter interpretation is supported by another of his discoveries. Unsolicited actions, taking the form of task behaviors designed to help a manager get his/her job done, were not appreciated; but assistance taking the form of listening, encouraging, and offering to help was appreciated. Further, superiors noticing managers giving help outside their areas of responsibility on their own initiative formed lowered performance impressions of these managers.

So monitoring colleagues tends to mark them as less competent, while doing part of their work marks the helpful manager himself or herself as less competent, and it also goes unappreciated. But showing concern, listening, encouraging, and offering to help is appreciated and leads to perceptions of higher performance for those who do it.

So now, as you drive home this evening, you can think about trust, review the day's activities, and recognize actions that fall into the categories McAllister discovered. And the next time the opportunity arises to give assistance to a colleague or to a customer, you may also remember the negative consequences of unsolicited, task-oriented assistance, and the positive consequences of listening, encouraging, caring, and offering support.

Reference: McAllister, Daniel J. (1995). Affect- and Cognition-Based Trust as Foundations for Interpersonal Cooperation in Organizations. Academy of Management Journal, 36 (1), pp. 24-59.

© Management Resources

Back to home page