Trust at Work and Its Benefits for the Organization

By Cheuk Yue Wan, Georgiana Darau |

Trust is considered a key success factor in contemporary work environments because there are predominated by teamwork, flexibility and cooperation. Trust is definitely needed to understand individual, team and organizational phenomena. But how do we define trust ?

There are large differences between the numerous definitions proposed by scholars along the years. However, it has been found that the essence of trust is as following : trust is ‘a psychological state’ consisting of two interrelated components, (a) the willingness to accept vulnerability, based on (b) positive expectations of trustworthiness. In other words, in order to trust someone you need to accept to be vulnerable and keep a positive expectation regarding the outcome.

The increase in the trust research have, unfortunately, been accompanied by a seeming increase in the quantity and severity of trust violations committed by businesses, governments and leaders worldwide. Therefore, organizations need to be aware of the factors and outcomes of trust. We know for sure that trust theory is applicable to a variety of important organizational problems such as conflict management, problem solving and innovation.

Difference between Trust and other constructs

It is important to know that there are critical differences between trust and other constructs such as perceived trustworthiness, trust propensity, risk-taking behavior and distrust. Firstly, perceived trustworthiness refers to the characteristics that lead to positive expectations and it is formed across three dimensions : ability, benevolence and integrity. These dimensions have a direct and unique relation with trust. Secondly, trust propensity has a direct effect on trust and is viewed as stable disposition that affects the likelihood that one party will trust another. Trust propensity is important in forming new organizational relationships as well as in the development of new interpersonal relationships. Thirdly, risk-taking is an outcome of trust. Although trust often leads to risk-taking behavior, trust is not risk-taking, it’s rather the willingness to assume risk. Lastly, distrust focuses on the probable occurrence of undesirable behavior which will enable preventive and defensive actions to be taken. However, trust and distrust coexist in a given relationship and they should be cultivated at the same time in order to secure the benefits from both and to compensate for the weaknesses associated with each of them individually.

Three levels of Trust

As trust is an important factor in nowadays work environnement, we need to be aware of the different levels of trust. In the following part, we will present the three levels of trust :

  • Interpersonal trust

Interpersonal trust refers to the trust that one person has in another person. In the work setting, it refers to the trust of employees toward their supervisors or a top leader, or toward their coworkers. Interpersonal trust is operationalized as variations of perceptions of trustworthiness (ability, benevolence, integrity), positive confident expectations and willingness to accept vulnerability.

Trust is determined by certain individual and environmental factors. Employees who trust their managers will also have better fairness and justice perceptions of the managers’ decision, in a particular event. Trust starts at zero acquaintance and increases or decreases depending on certain factors. A research shows that trustworthiness perceptions are predicted by demographic similarity in new relationship, by trustworthy behaviors in more established relationships, and by shared perspective in more mature relationships.

Interpersonal trust has positive effects on a wide range of employee outcomes such as individual performance, job satisfaction, OCB (Organizational Citizenship Behavior), organizational commitment, and negative effects on conflicts, CWB (counterproductive behaviors) and turnover intentions. For example, trust in leaders is associated with employees’ ability to focus on value-producing activities, coworker trust with proactive work behavior, and mentors’ trust toward protégés predicts mentoring behaviors such as career-related support, psycho-social support and role modeling.

  • Team trust

Team trust is essentially a collective phenomenon that entails generalized expectations of trustworthiness and the willingness to accept vulnerability to all members. The team trust literature is centered on intra-trust : the collective trust that members have about their team colleagues ; and inter-trust : the collective trust one team has toward another team.

Teams consist of social systems of interdependent individuals working together for a common goal, therefore they are inherently multi level. Teams with strong ties have greater shared perceptions of trust than teams that lack such strong ties because members who interact more frequently are more emotionally attached and cohesive. Moreover, team with strong and dense ties also attain their goals more effectively, and members are more likely to stay together. Therefore, in order to mitigate some of the barriers to trust development, organizations need to increase perceptions of similarity by carefully select the team members. For example, organizations might select members who occupy similar hierarchical-level positions in the organization, or who have had successful previous experiences of working together. However, results show that similarity may lead to a quick development of trust earlier on in the team formation, but to have a positive and significant impact on team performance, cognition-based trust is more important.

Recent research demonstrated that team trust positively influences team performance. Intra-team trust has been found to increase team effectiveness outcomes such as team satisfaction and commitment, information sharing and exchange, team learning and team OCB. Intra-team trust plays an important role in the management and resolution of conflicts. Inter-team trust has been found to increase resources and knowledge exchange as well as team innovation. Nonetheless, trust in team is extremely important because it develops a climate of psychological safety which induces learning.

  • Organizational trust

Organizational trust is viewed as the global evaluation of an organization’s trustworthiness as perceived by its employees and their willingness to become vulnerable to the organization’s actions. It is similar to the conceptualization of trust at the team level which refers to the collective trust that is shared among its members.

There are certain organization level variable that have been shown to influence collective trust. If an organization invests in the employees and engages in supportive employment practices, trust in organization is higher. Particularly, transparency, fairness and consistency of policies and practices contribute to trust in the organization, whereas ongoing changes and the use of temporary employees has a negative effect on the trust in the organization. Moreover, researchers found that participative structures and management style improves the level of organizational trust, while bureaucratic structures negatively affects it. Organizational climates that emphasize individualistic values may have negative influence on the trust climate, whereas climates emphasizing cooperative action may have a positive influence on trust. Furthermore, participative leadership, organizational support, performance feedback and improvement opportunities are highly related to trust in the organization. When organizational leaders are perceived as putting other people’s needs and interests above their own, it leads to higher trust in the organization.

For the individual employee, shared trust in the organization has been found to have a positive impact on job satisfaction and promotes better communication and knowledge exchange between individuals and groups. From a managerial point of view, organizational trust can ease the introduction of organizational change, reduce vulnerability in selection practices, and increase organizational ambidexterity. Nonetheless, inter-organizational trust is an important ‘lubricant for cooperation between organizations’. Inter-organizational trust includes positive effects on transaction and negotiation costs reduction, contract flexibility, and continued and increased collaboration.



Costa, A. C., Ferrin, D. L., & Fulmer, C. A. (2018). Trust at work. In Ones, D. S., Anderson, N., Viswesvaran, C., & Sinangil, H. K. (Eds.). In Ones, D. S., Anderson, N., Viswesvaran, C., & Sinangil, H. K. (Eds.). The SAGE Handbook of Industrial, Work & Organizational Psychology, 2v: Personnel Psychology and Employee Performance; Organizational Psychology; Managerial Psychology and Organizational Approaches. (pp. 122-144). SAGE Publications.

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