30. July 2021

When "I trust you" becomes a burden

Original Study: Baer, M.D. et al. (2021): Undertrusted, overtrusted, or just right? The fairness of (in)congruence between trust wanted and trust received. In: Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 64, No.1. 180-206.

The study in one sentence

This study shows that trusting employees will not always lead to beneficial reactions. Only if the trust received meets the level of trust wanted by the employee is when it results in better performance.

Interesting for people who…

… want to understand how to lead best with trust.

What to remember

There is no doubt that trusting employees is beneficial for organizations, as it contributes to satisfaction, commitment, performance and agility. However, this study reveals that “the more the better” does not hold true for trust. Leaders can indeed over-trust. They need to consider when e.g. trusting employees to engage in an important project or decision means a higher demand in responsibility and therefore more workload, stress and pressure. When the trusting level of the leader exceeds the level wanted from the employee, it results in lower performance. Only in cases where the trust received matches the level of trust wanted, it is perceived fair and contributes beneficially to a better performance. This means, only the trust “fit” makes it a mutually-beneficial act, and when it does not fit, it can have a detrimental influence on the relationship and the performance. Not only in the case where employees feel under-trusted, but surprisingly as well when they feel over-trusted. No matter whether over- or under-trusted, in the eyes of employees, such a poor fit is a sign that their needs have not been considered.

The most insightful sentence

«When it comes to being trusted, a consideration of employees’ needs rather than a sole focus on absolute levels of trusting behaviors is a critical concern.»

The most provocative sentence

«Trusting employees who do not want it may be worse than simply wasted effort – it may damage their performance.»

Consequences for managerial practice

The call for agile, unbossed, self-organized settings today require leaders to rather trust more than less in employees. So, what can leaders do to find the right trust-level fit with their employees - not falling into the overtrust-pitfall? Simply asking your employees how much trust they want might not work. A desire for lower levels of trust will never be admitted as employees fear it gets misinterpreted as lower capability, motivation or commitment. Leaders should opt for actively and generally increasing the desired trust levels among employees. For example, when assigning challenging jobs or projects to employees, this trust should be consequently accompanied by providing support in the form of time, infrastructure, resources and coaching. Further, leaders should acknowledge the positive sides of challenging tasks more often, such as e.g. affording opportunities for growth and advancement. With both, they carefully and consciously increase higher trusting levels and thus a better fit.

Food for forward thinking…

In today’s home office and online-meeting times, finding the right trusting level-match is particularly challenging. What can help leaders to recalibrate the right trust level with employees despite less physical contact in distributed settings? What are your ideas and experiences? Please share below and help to establish a little collection of life-hacks for a trusting leader!

Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Dr. Eva Bilhuber
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