Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 153
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

A Matter of Trust

Researcher discovers a connection between initial trust and later job performance.

Fix an image in your mind of an angry employee, who's been angry for a long time. Let's call him Bill. Bill often grumbles to whomever will listen, and sometimes even grumbles to himself. He complains about you, company policies, and coworkers; and he seems to be withholding effort. He doesn't work as hard as he used to work. And Bill's annual performance review will likely be an occasion of dramatic suffering. Something is sure to be unfair, and everyone will soon hear the story - at least Bill's side of it.

It's a funny thing about Bill, though. He didn't start out cynical and mistrusting, and if he leaves, it won't take long for someone else to take his place. He seems to speak words others feel.

Would it surprise you to learn that the Bills in your company feel you betrayed them? That you broke promises and violated an implicit, unwritten agreement that obligated you to provide certain conditions of employment in return for good effort and loyalty?

Sandra Robinson of New York University studies implicit, unwritten employment agreements. She calls them psychological contracts, and Bill's belief that this contract was violated lies at the heart of his dissatisfaction.

Now you may protest that you've made no promises to any Bills in your company, and broken no agreements. You couldn't be in violation of any contract. That's probably true. So where does all this betrayal nonsense come from? Is it in Bill's imagination?

Professor Robinson explains: Employees often begin jobs full of hope, with unrealistic expectations and assumptions. We employers are delighted with their enthusiasm and encourage it, not realizing we are supporting beliefs that obligate us to provide job security, pay increases, and promotions we can't meet. Hence, a sense of betrayal gradually builds.

In Robinson's latest study, she questioned 125 MBA graduates over a 30-month period, and she found that most believed they'd received promises that had gone unfulfilled. Previous research had also found high percentages in other samples of employees, too, but in this study, Robinson explored the role trust plays in contract breaches.

Robinson reasoned that varying levels of trust at the time of hire combines with a common bias, called a confirmation bias, to influence both a recognition of contract breach, and reactions to it. A confirmation bias is the tendency to notice things that confirm what we already believe to be true, and to ignore evidence that contradicts our beliefs. For example, if we believe an acquaintance to be a kind person, we notice kind words and deeds that support this view and fail to notice evidence that contradicts it. And if negative acts are unmistakable, we're likely to attribute blame in a way that protects our beliefs, for example, that a negative act was an accidental slip rather than an intentional unkindness.

Robinson compared trust levels at the beginning of these graduates' employment to perceptions of contract breach 30 months later, and she found surprisingly strong support. To be sure, no one began employment genuinely distrustful. Her measure of trust yielded a range from moderate trust to high levels of trust. Still, those lowest on the trust measure were the most likely to feel betrayed 30 months later, and their performance and contributions to their coworkers reflected this alienation.

Robinson explains that a lower level of trust at the beginning of employment led these people to form an expectation of betrayal of their psychological contracts. Then a confirmation bias caused them to notice evidence that confirmed their belief and to overlook evidence that contradicted it. Notice, that an objective appraisal of what the employer actually did is missing from this reasoning. So, yes, it could be all in Bill's head.

Robinson also found the reverse of this process to be true, too. People measuring highest on trust at the time of hire were least likely to notice a contract breach and their performance reflected a continuing positive, hopeful outlook - once again, regardless of what the employer actually did.

Two implications immediately jump out. First, you must manage your employees' perception of trust, and not leave it to their imaginations. Give them good reason to believe they can trust you by demonstrating integrity, honesty, consistency, self restraint, and honorable intentions. And second, find a way to measure trust in your screening of new employees. An objective measure would be best, but you could also note comments people make in interviews about previous employers that reveal a lack of trust.

However you accomplish it, if you can select employees with high levels of trust, and keep that trust, you're likely to be satisfied with them in years to come.

Reference: Robinson, Sandra L. (1996) Trust and Breach of the Psychological Contract. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41 (4), 574-599.

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