Interpersonal Trust in Organizations
Abstract and Keywords
Interpersonal trust refers to confidence in another person (or between two persons) and a willingness to be vulnerable to him or her (or to each other). In contemporary organizational science, research conducted within organizations has extensively investigated personal, dyadic, and contextual factors that motivate interpersonal trust (i.e., trust between two persons) and the consequence of interpersonal trust for the trustor and the trustee. This line of work distinguishes between two orientations that researchers have taken when conceptualizing interpersonal trust: unidirectional trust and bidirectional trust. Unidirectional trust refers to a focus on one person’s trust in another without regard to the reciprocation of that trust. Unidirectional trust research investigates trust in another party at a higher hierarchy level (e.g., followers’ trust in the leader), a lower hierarchy level (e.g., the leader’s trust in followers), or at the same hierarchy level (e.g., employees’ trust in coworkers). Bidirectional trust focuses on the shared trust in a dyad. Research on bidirectional trust helps to provide insights about the complex pattern and evolution of interpersonal trust over time. However, research investigating bidirectional trust is relatively limited compared to unidirectional trust. Besides research on interpersonal trust within the same work unit, there is also a recent trend toward investigating interpersonal trust across work unit and organizational boundaries. Another important line of literature regarding interpersonal trust is the investigation of the causes and consequences of interpersonal trust violations and the effectiveness of remedies (e.g., apologies) for these violations.
Trust has generated considerable interest in the organizational sciences in recent years. For example, the volume of published studies of trust within teams alone accelerated from less than 10 prior to 2000 to over 100 by 2015 (De Jong, Dirks, & Gillespie, 2016). The volume of recent studies concerning interpersonal trust is even greater, both for experimental work that is theoretically applied to organizations, as in research in trust and social dilemmas (see the meta-analysis reported by Balliet & Van Lange, 2013), or studies that have examined trust within organizational settings (Colquitt, Scott, & LePine, 2007). There has also been extensive growth in emerging areas of trust research, most notably in the areas of trust across the boundaries of organizations or organizational collectives (e.g., Robson, Katsikeas, & Bello, 2008) and the study of processes associated with the aftermath of trust violations (e.g., Desmet, De Cremer, & van Dijk, 2011).
This millennium has also seen growth in quantitative and qualitative reviews relating to trust in organizations. Given the vastness of the domain of research and theory relating to trust in and among organizations, the majority of these reviews have focused on particular domains, such as dyadic trust (Korsgaard, Brower, & Lester, 2015), trust repair (Lewicki & Brinsfield, 2017), trust in leaders (Burke, Sims, Lazzara, & Salas, 2007; Dirks & Ferrin, 2002), trust in virtual teams (Breuer, Hüffmeier, & Hertel, 2016), trust across levels of an organization (Fulmer & Gelfand, 2012), as well as particular relationships between trust and outcomes, including individual performance (Colquitt et al., 2007), team performance (De Jong et al., 2016), and dyadic cooperation (Balliet & Van Lange, 2013). In this article, we review some of the directions, methods, and findings within some broadly defined subsets of this very extensive literature. We aim to enable scholars who have not closely followed the trust literature to identify issues and trends, focusing chiefly on work that has been published after or around the turn of the millennium. Our focus is further limited to interpersonal trust, as between leaders and followers and between peers. We focus less attention on work unit-level trust concepts and processes or on the research concerning trust that is not a mainstream topic within the organizational sciences. Our review within each of these broad domains is necessarily quite selective, with our choice of studies driven chiefly by their representativeness of the area. In some cases, however, studies are noted for their novelty with respect to the research question or research design.
We begin with a very general conceptual overview of how trust is conceived by organizational scholars. This includes the primary role of trust in contributing to social exchange, and the dominant conceptual frameworks concerning trust constructs and processes. We then briefly review areas of interpersonal trust. We conclude by discussing conceptual methodological issues and concerns that, if addressed, may lead to further advances in the literature on interpersonal trust within organizations.
Construct Definitions and Key Conceptual Frameworks
The history of scholarly work on interpersonal trust has included a range of theoretical perspectives, including theories that emphasize interactive communication in promoting levels of cooperation that is indicative of high or low trust (e.g., Deutsch, 1958). This includes work using game theoretic approaches to bargaining situations (Solomon, 1960) and the Prisoner’s Dilemma (Rapoport, Chammah, & Orwant, 1965), as well as a separate tradition, pioneered by Rotter (1967, 1971), wherein trust was treated as a generalized response tendency that is based on an individual’s previous experiences. Neither of these theoretical perspectives and modes of assessing trust has been widely embraced in the contemporary organizational literature. Contemporary trust research as conducted in the organizational sciences generally treats trust as a psychological disposition toward another entity at a particular point in time or as a characteristic of a relationship with an entity (Colquitt, Baer, Long, & Halvorsen-Ganepola, 2014).
There are various definitions of trust as a psychological state. A consensus definition of trust would emphasize confidence in another party and a willingness to be vulnerable to the party, be that a person or a group. For example, McAllister (1995) defined trust as “the extent to which a person is confident in, and willing to act on the basis of, the words, actions, and decisions of another” (p. 25; see also Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt, & Camerer, 1998). Notably, trust and distrust are not considered to be opposite on the same continuum but rather distinct concepts (Lewicki, McAllister, & Bies, 1998; Kramer, 1999). Trust and distrust in another individual are distinguishable and can coexist (Lewicki et al., 1998). However, this distinction has received little empirical attention. Our review focuses on trust, although we discuss the importance of distinguishing between interpersonal trust and distrust in organizations.
As noted by Cropanzano and Mitchell (2005), prominent theories of social exchange (Blau, 1964; Holmes, 1981) have identified trust “as an identifying outcome of favorable social exchanges” (p. 886). These authors stated, however, that the evidence supporting this claim was “sparse” but generally supportive. They and other scholars have noted that other important properties of high-quality social exchange are mutual support and commitment and psychological contract fulfillment. A review of the social exchange literature by Colquitt et al. (2014) observed that during the first decade of this century, studies of social exchange published in top organizational journals tend to index social exchange using measures of perceived support, perceived exchange quality, and affective commitment rather than trust.
McAllister (1995) distinguished between two kinds of trust: Cognition-based trust is grounded in the trustor’s beliefs about the trustee’s reliability and dependability, and affect-based trust refers to reciprocated interpersonal care and concern over time. Whereas many trust constructs, and measures used in assessing them, simply refer to whether one trusts another party or parties, such as one’s supervisor or coworkers, McAllister’s concept of affective trust contains a strong emotional component that highlights a belief in the other’s concern for one’s personal welfare. Thus affect-based trust subsumes the social exchange elements of the mutual commitment, perceived support, and conventional trust. It is very similar to identification-based trust as conceived by other scholars (Lewicki & Bunker, 1995; Shapiro, Sheppard, & Cheraskin, 1992). Based on their content analysis, Colquitt et al. (2014) concluded that McAllister’s concept and measure of affect-based trust was more content valid that most other concepts and instruments that have been used to refer to social exchange quality.
Schaubroeck, Peng, and Hannah (2013) noted that cognition-based trust is very similar to what has been termed knowledge-based trust (Lewicki & Bunker, 1995). It is also similar to the competence and integrity dimensions of trustworthiness outlined by Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman (1995), because both constructs refer to an “individual’s level of confidence in another party gained from evidence in hand” (p. 1149). McAllister (1995) had noted that cognition-based trust is a causal antecedent of affect-based trust because individuals are generally wary of entering into deep social exchange relationships with coworkers they do not consider competent. Scholars tend to agree that effective working relationships often begin with high levels of trust in the other’s competencies, notwithstanding the lack of familiarity between the parties. This trust is largely cognitive in nature, based on the trustor’s innate propensity to trust others, the pre-existing reputation of the trusted target (trustee), cognitive categorization processes (as with homophily, stereotyping, and ingroup identification), and structural guarantees. As episodes provide opportunities to observe the trustee, trustors are seen to update their knowledge about the other party’s competence and dependability. In some cases they become even more vulnerable to the other party based on the affective bonds they develop based on the perceived relational benefits (Lewicki, Tomlinson, & Gillespie, 2006; McKnight, Cummings, & Chervany, 1998; Rousseau et al., 1998; Williams, 2001). As summarized by Rousseau et al.,
Reliability and dependability in previous interactions with the trustor give rise to positive expectations about the trustee’s intentions. Emotion enters into the relationship between the parties because frequent, longer-term interaction leads to the formation of attachments based upon reciprocated interpersonal care and concern (McAllister, 1995, p. 399)
Notably, however, there is also a view that initially high levels of trust can encompass the dispositions relating to deeper aspects of social exchange, as with affect-based trust, and that such swiftly arising trust derives from trustors’ intuitive psychological processes (Kramer, 1996).
As summarized by Williams (2001), “The types of trust that are associated with affect are more stable over time, across situations, and with respect to small trust violations” (p. 379). Thus McAllister (1995) and other scholars suggest that a high level of affective trust presumes at least a threshold level of cognitive trust. They do not argue that the relationship is monotonic. Whereas evidence suggests that cognitive trust tends to begin at fairly high levels (e.g., Kramer, 1994), given the expected volatility in cognitive trust due to changing behavioral observations of the trustee, a nonlinear trend in cognitive trust may be expected over the lifespan of a working relationship.
Despite the strong conceptual connections between cognition-based and affect-based trust, studies that have examined both constructs have not specified a causal relationship between them. We briefly review two exceptions in later subsections concerning team-level trust (Schaubroeck, Lam, & Peng, 2011) and interpersonal trust (Schaubroeck et al., 2013).
Another influential framework of trust is the integrative model of Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman (1995). They conceptualized trust as
the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other party will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control the party. (p. 712)
Their model proposed that trust is a function of the trustee’s trustworthiness and the trustor’s propensity to trust. There are three components of the trustee’s trustworthiness: (a) benevolence, which is about being supportive and caring; (b) ability, which is about being competent and capable; and (c) integrity, which is about being consistent and honest. In their integrative review of trust literature, Rousseau and colleagues (1998) summarized that positive expectations and willingness to be vulnerable are two critical components of trust. Rousseau et al. also viewed willingness to be vulnerable as based upon positive expectations. These views accord with the Mayer et al. (1995) model in which the three components of trustworthiness serve as antecedents of trust.
Both McAllister’s (1995) and Mayer et al.’s (1995) studies have gained considerable empirical support in the organizational literature on interpersonal trust within organizations. For instance, numerous studies have adopted McAllister’s model to study trust between individuals such as supervisor and followers (e.g., Schaubroeck et al., 2011), mentor and mentee (e.g., Wang, Tomlinson, & Noe, 2010), group peers (e.g., Schaubroeck et al., 2013), and so on. Also, research indicated that the two types of trust could promote job performance in different ways (Colquitt, LePine, Piccolo, Zapata, & Rich, 2012). For another example, in support of the Mayer et al. model, meta-analytical findings suggest that evaluations of benevolence, ability, and integrity were all significantly correlated with trust, and they account for unique variance in trust (Colquitt et al., 2007).
This article focuses on interpersonal trust, which describes a trusting relationship between a trustor (the individual who trust others) and a trustee (the individual who is being trusted). We briefly review this literature with the aim to clarify the more current questions and issues for organizational scholars. This literature can be usefully divided into two foci. These include work that examines unidirectional trust, in which one party has trust in the other and research that examines bidirectional trust in which both parties trust and are trusted. The majority of existing research investigates unidirectional trust. In the following sections we first overview representative studies that accord these two foci of research, with a focus on unidirectional trust. We separately review research that, while fitting one or the other of these two foci, constitute a unique trend of focusing on interpersonal trust in relationships that span organizational or work unit boundaries. A separate section describes key theories and findings concerning how people respond to violations of interpersonal trust and often repair the damage to relationships that are created by these violations. Finally, we conclude this article by providing a general discussion that highlights areas that we believe merit more attention in future research on interpersonal trust in organizations.
Key Research Findings Concerning Interpersonal Trust in Organizations
The majority of interpersonal trust research focuses on unidirectional trust in which the distinction between the trustor and the trustee is made clear. Here we review research on the antecedents and consequences of unidirectional trust. When reviewing its antecedents, we pay attention to different types of trustor–trustee pairs (e.g., follower–leader, worker–coworker). When reviewing the outcomes of trust, we distinguish between trustor-centric research (i.e., research investigating the effect of trust on the party who trusts the other party) and trustee-centric research (i.e., research investigating the effect of trust on the party who is trusted).
Antecedents of Trust
Trust in Leader
Supporting Mayer et al.’s (1995) model of perceived trustworthiness, studies find that perceptions of a leader’s ability, benevolence, and integrity are all positively related with followers’ trust in the leader (e.g., Mayer & Gavin, 2005; see Colquitt et al., 2007, for a meta-analysis). However, all three types of perceived trustworthiness might not be essential to promote followers’ trust in the leader. For example, Sweeney’s (2010) research on military soldiers showed that before combat, leaders whose behavior met or exceeded soldiers’ expectations regarding ability (not benevolence) inspired the most trust among soldiers. By contrast, Colquitt and Rodell (2011) surveyed employees from multiple industries and found that, after controlling for the previous level of trust in leader, only benevolence and integrity were significant predictors of subsequent trust in leader. Frazier, Tupper, and Fainshmidt (2016) reported that in new working relationships, perceptions of high leader ability, benevolence, and integrity all contributed to trust in supervisors. In established relationships, however, only leader ability and integrity promoted trust in supervisors. To summarize, although the Mayer et al. model has gained considerable support among scholars as a framework for characterizing trustworthiness, the most vital characteristics for trustworthiness may be contingent on contextual variables.
In addition to Mayer and colleagues’ (1995) three attributes of trustworthiness, leadership styles have been widely studied as the antecedent of trust in leader. Leadership styles such as transformational leadership (Jung & Avolio, 2000, Pillai, Schreishem, & Williams, 1999; Zhu & Akhta, 2014), transactional leadership (Jung & Avolio, 2000, Pillai et al., 1999), ethical leadership (Ng & Feldman, 2015), and participative leadership (Huang, Iun, Liu, & Gong, 2010) were found to be positively related to trust in leaders, whereas abusive supervision is negatively related to trust in leaders (Vogel et al., 2015). Schaubroeck et al. (2011) examined transformational leadership and servant leadership as separate antecedents of followers’ cognition-based trust in the leader and affect-based trust in the leader, respectively. The study also tested and supported the hypothesized relationship between cognition-based and affect-based trust. Their data were cross-sectional, and thus a causal relationship was not convincingly supported. Schaubroeck et al.’s (2013) study extended their work by examining cross-lagged relationships. They found evidence supporting the hypothesized causal connection between cognition-based and affect-based trust in cross-lagged analyses.
Specific leader behaviors have also been examined as antecedents of followers’ trust in leaders. The extent to which leaders actively solicit information from subordinates when monitoring progress was associated with trust in the leader (Liao & Chun, 2016). Leaders who administered justified punishment to wrongdoers also inspired followers’ trust (Wang & Murnighan, 2017). Surprisingly, scholars have done little to integrate this line of research with Mayer et al.’s (1995) model by linking leadership styles and behaviors with specific trustworthiness perceptions of the leader. A study reported by Lambert, Tepper, Carr, Holt, and Barelka (2012) is an exception. Based on person–environment fit perspective, they demonstrated that followers (trustor) are not just passive recipients of a leader’s (trustee) behaviors when forming a trusting relationship with the leader: Comparing the level of initiating structure and consideration behaviors exhibited by the leader and needed by the follower, they found that high absolute fit was associated with high trust in leader, whereas low trust in the leader was linked to misfit wherein the leader exhibited more initiating structure than followers reported they needed.
Another popular area of research lies in the relation between followers’ justice perceptions and their trust in the leader. Numerous studies have shown that procedural justice and interactional justice are positively related to trust in the leader (e.g., Ambrose & Schminke, 2003; Aryee, Budhwar, & Chen, 2002; Colquitt et al., 2012; De Cremer, van Dijke, & Bos, 2006; Johnson & Lord, 2010; Khazanchi & Masterson, 2011; Konovsky & Pugh, 1994; Stinglhamber, De Cremer, & Mercken, 2006). A meta-analysis reported by Dirks and Ferrin (2002) noted substantial positive relationships between trust in leader and both procedural and interactional justice perceptions. However, because these studies have relied on cross-sectional data, the direction of causality is uncertain. A study reported by Colquitt and Rodell (2011) used data collected at two time points and found that procedural and interpersonal justice predicted subsequent benevolence and integrity, and integrity also predicted the subsequent level of justice dimensions. These findings suggest that the relationship between justice perceptions and trust in the leader can be represented as a cyclical recursive process.
Research investigating relationships between organizational factors and trust in the leader is relatively scant. An exception is a quasi-experiment reported by Leiter, Laschinger, Day, and Oore (2011). They found that trust in leader increased significantly compared with the control group after the implementation of a program aimed at reducing incivility.
Trust in Coworkers
In contrast to followers’ trust in leaders, trust in coworkers involves trustors and trustees who have the same hierarchical status. Antecedents of trust in coworkers include attributes of the coworker and the focal person (research subject). For example, Levine and Schweitzer (2015) found that after a coworker told prosocial lies, perceived benevolence would increase whereas perceived integrity decreased. As for the trustor’s attributes, Dunn, Ruedy, and Schweitzer (2012) found that employees’ social comparisons with their coworkers were negatively associated with trust in coworkers. More specifically, upward comparisons with coworkers decreased affect-based trust in coworkers, whereas downward comparisons decreased cognition trust in coworkers.
Trust does not form strictly in isolated dyads. Individuals are embedded in a wider network of existing relationships. Recognizing this, researchers have used social network analysis to examine whether and how the characteristics of the larger trust network influence trust between two individual coworkers. Ferrin, Dirks, and Shah (2006) found that in a trusting network among coworkers, transferability (whether two individuals are linked via third parties that they both trust), and structural equivalence (whether two individuals are similar in their relationships with all potential third parties in the network) were both positively related with trust. Building on Ferrin et al.’s work, Lau and Liden (2008) found that employees tended to have more trust in coworkers who were also trusted by the group leader than in coworkers who were less trusted by the leader.
Consequences of Unidirectional Trust
Research taking a trustor-centric perspective studies the effect of trust on the trustor. As leaders have much influence on employees’ work experiences through setting goals, giving feedback, and determining incentives, many studies have found that trust in leader was positively related to favorable attitudinal outcomes on followers such as higher organizational commitment (Colquitt et al., 2012; Yang & Mossholder, 2010), higher organizational identification (De Cremer et al., 2006; Schaubroeck et al., 2013), and higher job satisfaction (Yang & Mossholder, 2010). There are also favorable behavioral outcomes of trust in the leader on followers, including higher job performance (Aryee et al., 2002; Schaubroeck et al., 2013; Simmons, Gooty, Nelson, & Little, 2009), organizational citizenship behavior (OCB; Aryee et al., 2002; Chen, Eberly, Chiang, Farh, & Cheng, 2014; Mayer & Gavin, 2005; Zhu & Akhta, 2014), and creativity (Gong, Cheung, Wang, & Huang, 2012; Khazanchi & Masterson, 2011; Liao & Chun, 2016). The meta-analysis reported by Dirks and Ferrin (2002) noted that trust in leader was related to a range of attitudinal and behavioral outcomes. The magnitude of relationships between trust and attitudinal outcomes such as job satisfaction (ρ = .65, k = 34) and organizational commitment (ρ = .59, k = 40) was larger than for behavioral outcomes such as job performance (ρ = .17, k = 21) and citizenship behavior (ρ = .22, k = 12).
Researchers have also examined mechanisms through which trust in leader promotes such favorable outcomes for followers. For example, progress is being made in understanding how affect-based and cognition-based trust influence follower outcomes. Colquitt et al. (2012) reported that increased normative commitment mediated the relation between affect-based trust in leader and job performance. The relationship between cognition-based trust in leader and job performance was largely explained by reduced uncertainty. Therefore, affect-based trust in leader may drive exchange processes between the trustor and the organization, whereas higher cognition-based trust may decrease perceived uncertainty at work and allow the trustor to focus attention on job activities. In a similar vein, Schaubroeck and colleagues (2011) demonstrated that at the team level the mechanisms underlying the relations between affect- and cognition-based trust in leader and team performance followed distinct paths through team psychological safety and team potency, respectively. Consistent with the theory that cognition-based trust inspires affect-based trust because competent colleagues are evaluated more closely for deepening of social exchange relationships, Schaubroeck and colleagues (2013) also found that the followers’ trait relational identity moderated the relationship, such that there was a stronger connection between cognition-based and affect-based trust in the leader among persons who are more inclined to seek to develop new relationships. However, this interaction finding did not extend to the time-lagged relationships between the two types of trust.
Similar to research on trust in leader, one’s trust in coworkers has been positively associated with his or her favorable outcomes, such as organizational commitment (Parker, Williams, & Turner, 2006), organizational identification (Schaubroeck et al., 2013), and proactive behavior (Parker et al., 2006).
Research using a trustee-centric perspective aims to examine the consequences of trust on the person being trusted. Based on Mayer et al.’s (1995) model, a study by Dirks and Skarlicki (2009) observed that the extent to which the focal employee was perceived as trustworthy by coworkers, as assessed by benevolence, integrity, and ability, was positively associated with the focal employee’s job performance. Further, perceived ability was positively related to job performance only when the individual was perceived as also having high integrity.
Concerning the consequence of being trusted by the leader, studies have shown that feeling trusted by the leader may make employees feel better about themselves at work (Lau, Lam, & Wen, 2014), promote employees’ sense of responsibility (Salamon & Robinson, 2008), and further contribute to performance at both the individual level (Lau et al., 2014) and the team level (Salamon & Robinson, 2008). Similarly, a study of mentor–mentee relationships found that the mentor’s affect-based trust in the mentee was positively related to the amount of mentoring (i.e., career-related support, psychological support, role modeling) that the mentee reported receiving from the mentor (Wang et al., 2010).
Baer and colleagues (2015) suggested that being trusted by one’s leader can be a double-edged sword. They found that a high level of such trust from the leader can make employees feel prouder of themselves at work, which can reduce their emotional exhaustion. Yet, feeling trusted can increase employees’ concerns about maintaining their reputation, and this concern can increase their emotional exhaustion (Baer et al., 2015). As this dual-path model points to offsetting favorable and unfavorable effects, it runs contrary to prevailing assumptions that being trusted always promotes well-being.
As we noted earlier, trust is often conceived in terms of a high-quality social exchange relationship. Whereas research on interpersonal trust in organizations often formulates theory and hypotheses with the “relationship” between two parties in mind, typically the beliefs relating to trust are provided by only one party to the relationship. We refer to research on “bidirectional trust” as studies of interpersonal trust in organizations that build on the perspectives of all parties to the relationship into the research design. Compared to unidirectional trust, research investigating bidirectional trust is relatively limited. An example of this line of research is a study reported by Brower, Lester, Korsgaard, and Dineen (2009). They found that leaders’ trust in followers strengthened the relationship between followers’ trust in the leader and followers’ OCB. This example of a bidirectional trust study is quite straightforward, yet more recent studies of bidirectional trust often test complex models about the development of dyadic and bidirectional trust over time (e.g., Ferrin, Bligh, & Kohles, 2008; Gupta, Ho, Pollack, & Lai, 2016; Jones & Shah, 2016; Yakovleva, Reilly, & Werko, 2010).
Characteristics of both parties are important factors in reciprocal trust relationships. For example, Yakovleva et al. (2010) found that benevolence and integrity perceived from both sides in coworker dyads is related to trust in the trustee, whereas the trustor’s ability was not related to trust in the trustee. They also found that one’s propensity to trust was related to his or her trust in the other person and, more importantly, the other person’s trust in him or her. In a similar vein, Jones and Shah (2016) tested a linear mixed-effects model to examine trust in project groups. They reported that initially the trustor was the deciding factor when assessing the perceived ability, benevolence, and integrity about the trustee. The trustor’s influence on these perceptions decreased and the trustee’s influence on these perceptions increased as teams progressed.
Some research has looked at the bidirectional trust within dyads in more novel ways. For example, to study how cooperation and trust perception in dyads evolve over time, Ferrin and colleagues (2008) reported that a nonrecursive process described how mutual perceptions of trustworthiness and mutual cooperation codevelop in dyadic relationships. A’s perceptions of B’s trustworthiness encourages A to behave cooperatively toward B; after observing A’s cooperation, B consequently perceives A as more trustworthy. The same process occurs in reverse. This produces a spiraling of cooperative or uncooperative behavior over time. The authors tested and supported this spiraling model by collecting data at six data points. In another example, Gupta et al. (2016) conceptualized dyadic trust of coworkers as the lessor of A’s reported trust in B and B’s reported trust in A. They found that the absolute level of dyadic trust and each party’s betweenness in the dyadic trust network (i.e., the degree to which an individual connects otherwise unconnected members) both contributed to one’s job performance.
In summary, research on bidirectional interpersonal trust studies more complex patterns and provides potentially meaningful insights about trust formation and development than other research that refers to trust in relationships and yet assesses only the perspective of one party to the relationship. Whereas a thorough review of dyadic, bidirectional trust is beyond the scope of this article (for a review, see Korsgaard et al., 2015), we encourage more research and theory development concerning bidirectional trust.
Summary and Critiques
Our review of interpersonal trust research revealed that followers’ trust in leader has received much more emphasis than leaders’ trust in followers in the literature investigating the antecedents of trust and the consequences of trust on the trustor. Yet, leader’s trust in followers has received much more attention than followers’ trust in leaders in the literature that studies the consequences of trust on the trustee. As a result, we know very little about what predicts leaders’ trust in followers and the effect of having high (or low) trust in followers on the leader. We also lack knowledge of the effect of followers’ trust in the leader on the leader himself or herself. Furthermore, the bidirectional trust research primarily studies trust between coworker dyads, not follower–leader dyads (for an exception, see Brower et al., 2009). More research is warranted concerning the dynamic interaction of followers’ trust in the leader and the leader’s trust in followers, and how this influences their behaviors toward one another and other outcomes for either or both parties. For example, when a leader places high trust in a follower, does this enhance or otherwise distinguish his or her expectations for this follower relative to other followers? Might the followers’ expectations change as well, leading to a greater potential for disappointment in the longer run? Finally, research on leader–member exchange, which includes aspects of trust, has found only moderate correlations between leader and follower reports of the same relationship (Cogliser, Schriesheim, Scandura, & Gardner, 2009). The reason for this disparity in perception has received considerable research attention and remains unresolved. How do disparities in perceptions of trust in the relationship develop and affect how each party’s trust in the other evolves over time? What conditions favor a stronger linkage between the two parties’ trust perceptions? We believe these are important questions, especially in view of the widespread practice of researchers to purport to assess trust in social exchange relationships while measuring the trust perceptions of only one party to the relationship.
Conceptualization and Measurement
Our review frequently found a mismatch between conceptualization and measurement of trust and trustworthiness. If interpersonal trust is defined in terms of viewing another person “dependable” and “reliable,” only cognition-based trust should be examined (McAllister, 1995). In addition, affect- and cognition-based trust are distinguishable constructs and should be measured separately. Existing research has also shown that affect- and cognition-based trusts are related to different antecedents and may promote job performance through different mediating pathways (Colquitt et al., 2012; Dunn et al., 2012; Schaubroeck et al., 2011). However, studies often do not distinguish forms of trust in theory or measurement (e.g., Breuer et al., 2016).
Although the antecedents and consequences of interpersonal trust have been well documented, a large portion of survey studies has relied on cross-sectional data, which precludes confident conclusions about causality. For example, many scholars have modeled justice perceptions as antecedent to trust perceptions (e.g., Ambrose & Schminke, 2003; Aryee et al., 2002; De Cremer et al., 2006; Johnson & Lord, 2010; Khazanchi & Masterson, 2011; Konovsky & Pugh, 1994; Stinglhamber et al., 2006). Recently, however, some scholars have proposed that trust is causally precedent to justice perceptions (e.g., Fulmer & Ostroff, 2017; Holtz, 2015), and findings from a study reported by Colquitt and Rodell (2011) suggested a reciprocal relationship. Another example is the relationship between leaders’ trust in their followers and followers’ favorable behaviors such as OCB. Followers’ OCB could be the outcome of leaders’ trust because a high level of trust represents a high-quality social exchange relationship (e.g., Aryee et al., 2002; Chen et al., 2014). However, followers’ OCB could also serve as the antecedent of leaders’ trust because engaging in these discretionary behaviors may signal that the follower is willing to sacrifice his or her own resources for the well-being of the group he or she leads (Reiche et al., 2014). Without longitudinal data and appropriate analytic approaches to assess causal relationships, such as cross-lagged regression, it is difficult to clearly demonstrate the form of the relationship between trust and other associated constructs.
Trust Across Boundaries
In recent years there has been a growth in interest in how interpersonal trust across work unit or organizational boundaries influences behavior and other outcomes. A substantial subset of this research lies outside the purview of this article because it concerns aggregate levels of trust between units or organizations rather than interpersonal relationships. For example, numerous studies have examined trust between collective entities engaged in strategic alliances (e.g., Krishnan, Martin, & Noorderhaven, 2006) or other forms of interorganizational relationships, such as between banks and customer firms (Saparito, Chen, & Sapienza, 2004; for a meta-analysis of a general set of organizational relationships, see Connelly, Crook, Combs, Ketchen, & Aguinis, 2018). Interpersonal trust may be at the root of some high- or low- trust interorganizational relationships, yet this cannot be inferred from the aggregate data. An exception was a study reported by Zaheer, McEvily, and Perrone (1998). They distinguished the interpersonal and interfirm trust in buyer–seller relationships and found that the two forms of trust were empirically distinct, and that each was negatively related to costs related to negotiation, conflict, and poor performance.
Many studies have examined interpersonal trust that crosses boundaries within organizations, such as between different work units like departments or project teams. For example, Webber and Klimoski (2004) found that in situations in which cognitive trust was threatened in relationships between project teams and their clients, the reliability (or trustworthiness) of the project manager was pivotal to clients’ continued commitment. Among studies examining interpersonal trust across functional boundaries within an organization, Fulmer and Ostroff (2017) found that followers’ trust in their direct leaders was positively related to their trust in the top leaders. In a trend we believe is potentially more impactful to the study of how interpersonal trust develops between individuals, researchers have begun examining trust, or proxies for trust, within individuals’ ego networks. These networks are comprised of those others with whom a worker interacts or has especially strong advice or friendship ties, often irrespective of work-unit boundaries. This approach has great potential for research because the data enable researchers to identify how the benefits of trustful relationships operate indirectly through the various nodes of a network. Trust established between third parties to one’s own relationships can have meaningful advantages (and disadvantages) to one’s ability to deepen exchange relationships and to achieve other aims. Chua, Ingram, and Morris (2008) provide a strong example of how embeddedness within a network of positive (negative) ties promoted (worsened) affect-based trust in their direct ties.
Trust Violation and Repair
The trustee may behave in ways that violate trust, such as intentionally exploiting the trustor or failing to fulfill the trustor’s expectations. Recognition of a trust violation often leads the trustee to engage in trust repair efforts, which seek to restore the trust that the trustee had earlier maintained (Kramer & Lewicki, 2010). In recent years, scholars have shown considerable interest in processes related to trust violation and repair. The chief foci of the theoretical models and studies in this area have centered on identifying factors that affect trust violations and strategies that influence the effectiveness of trust repair.
As we summarized earlier, Mayer et al.’s (1995) model specifies that trustworthiness is judged based on perceived ability, benevolence, and integrity. Existing research has most frequently studied whether ability-based or integrity-based trust violations can be repaired more easily (Kim, Dirks, Cooper, & Ferrin, 2006; Trafimow, Bromgard, Finlay, & Ketelaar, 2005). The results suggest that integrity-based trust violations are more difficult to repair than ability-based trust violations. The reason appears to be that behaviors reflecting low integrity tend to be perceived as pertaining to one’s true character, whereas information about ability is not as diagnostic about the other’s trustworthiness (Kim et al., 2006). Integrity judgments in the context of trust violation might be determined in large part by the perception of the intentionality of the violator (see Tomlinson & Mryer, 2009). Feelings of betrayal and their ramifications for the exchange relationship are also weaker to the extent the agency of the trustee had been compromised, such as when an authority figure compels behavior that violates another’s trust.
The timing of trust violation is also considered important in the literature. Scholars have suggested that because early-stage trust is grounded in tentative and assumption-based judgments about the trustee, it is more fragile than it is at a later stage when people are more emotionally invested (Kim, Dirks, & Cooper, 2009; Lewicki & Bunker, 1995). Supporting this view, Lount, Zhong, Sivanathan, and Murnighan (2008) reported on research findings that trust violations occurring early in a relationship are more damaging to relationship quality than are later trust violations. The findings in this area are not entirely consistent, however. Scholars have suggested that as relationships develop and emotional investment accrues, trust violation at a later stage is more damaging than it is when violations occur at formative stages of a relationship. This is because dissonance created by the imbalance of the violation and the emotional tie is more threatening to the betrayed person’s identity (Lewicki & Bunker 1995; Robinson, Dirks, & Ozcelik, 2004). Bottom, Gibson, Daniels, and Murnighan (2002) reported that early violations were associated with calm, cognitively oriented reactions by the victim, but later violations were associated with emotionally oriented reactions.
Strategies of Trust Repair
Verbal statements and compensation have received much attention in the literature as potentially effective strategies to repair trust. Among verbal statements (e.g., accounts, explanations, etc.), making apologies is the most studied strategy.
Making apologies includes activities that acknowledge the occurrence of trust violation, take ownership of the violation, express regret, and promise to behave differently in the future. Tomlinson, Dineen, and Lewicki (2004) tested several factors that affected the effectiveness of apologies. Apologies were more effective (e.g., more likely to elicit further cooperation) when they were perceived to be sincere, when they occurred sooner after the violation, when they included an internal attribution on the part of the violator, and when the violation appeared to be an isolated event, not a habitual and repetitive behavior. Following this work, researchers have explored factors that may promote the effectiveness of apologies. They have found that the type of trust violations influenced the effectiveness of apologies. Apologies were more effective when the trust violation was ability based, but denial was more effective when the trust violation was integrity based (Ferrin, Kim, Cooper, & Dirks, 2007; Kim et al., 2006; Kim, Ferrin, Cooper, & Dirks, 2004).
Lewicki, Polin, and Lount (2016) identified six specific components of apologies (i.e., explanation, acknowledgment of responsibility, expression of regret, declaration of repentance, offer of repair, and request for forgiveness) and reported that apologies that included more components were perceived as more effective than apologies with fewer components. They also found that explanation, acknowledgment of responsibility, and offer of repair were the most critical components.
Another strategy of trust repair is to provide tangible compensation to the victim. There are some mixed results regarding whether apologies or compensation are more effective in repairing a relationship (Bottom et al., 2002; Lewicki & Brinsfield, 2017). However, there is consistent evidence showing that combining apologies and compensation is more effective than either strategy alone (De Cremer, 2010; Haesevoets, Folmer, De Cremer, & Van Hiel, 2013).
Lewicki and Brinsfield (2017) suggested that, based on the findings of Bottom et al. (2002), it is helpful for repair efforts to be cognitively focused (e.g., referring to mindsets and agreeing on more specific expectations) if the trust violation is at early stage. If the trust violation is at a later stage, repair efforts need to be emotion-focused, involving apologies and other more demonstrative efforts that recognize the emotional effect of the violation. However, we are not aware of efforts to test this contingency approach.
Our review of interpersonal trust research in organizations indicates that there has been substantial progress in understanding the causes and consequences of interpersonal trust in organizations. For progress in this domain to accelerate, we highlight a few areas on which we believe researchers can place more attention.
Attending to Power Disparity in Relationships
Taking an integrative view of the research on interpersonal trust on organizations that we summarized in the previous section, we found that the majority of studies investigate follower’s trust in the leader or one’s trust in his or her coworkers. Relatively few studies focus on leaders’ trust in their followers. One reason for this asymmetry may be because interpersonal trust involves a willingness to be vulnerable to another individual (May et al., 1995; Rousseau et al., 1998), and followers are particularly vulnerable to their leader because leaders influence how resources are distributed among their followers. The leader, as one with higher power and status compared to the followers, has control over important outcomes for the follower such as incentives, opportunities, promotion, and so on. Therefore, the willingness to be vulnerable to leaders is important in describing leader–follower relationships and may precipitate favorable attitudes and behavioral consequences. As a result, researchers may emphasize this aspect of trust in leader–follower relationships due to its perceived importance to practice.
Power disparity is certainly relevant to trust in the context of leader–follower relationships, yet in this connection leaders’ vulnerability to their followers merits more attention. The leader is responsible for group performance that is highly dependent on individual contribution. Leaders must count on followers to work together to achieve performance goals, and the behaviors of followers may impact the leader’s image in the eyes of other stakeholders (e.g., upper management team, clients). For example, stakeholders may associate the unethical wrongdoing of a follower with the leader’s lack of competency to effectively guide ethical behaviors. Therefore, it would be useful to see research that investigates leaders’ willingness to be vulnerable to their followers. This would include developing and testing hypotheses concerning factors that contribute to leaders’ trust in their followers as well as the consequences of leaders having low trust in their followers, such as may be reflected by their use of a controlling leadership style.
Placing More Focus at the Dyadic Level
We have noted that most research on interpersonal trust in organizations focuses on the perceptions and reactions of either the trustor or the trustee, whereas dyadic processes have received relatively little empirical attention outside of laboratory research. This may reflect the relative difficulty of collecting genuinely dyadic data in organizations. As discussed thoroughly by Korsgaard, Brower, and Lester (2015), measures of trust within dyads also often do not aggregate well because the level of trust is asymmetrical (e.g., Smith & Barclay, 1997). The divergence may reflect interesting dynamics; uncovering these dynamics, however, falls within the category of “easier said than done.” Yet, researchers who wish to examine dyadic trust can often more carefully consider two things. First, what is the appropriate referent in asking about trust? There may be greater convergence on questions relating to the extent of “our” trust than one may obtain by asking about “my” trust in another individual. Whether the referent shift is appropriate, however, depends on the theoretical framework of the investigation. Second, researchers can strive to identify in advance the kinds of variables that would introduce asymmetry in a relationship. For example, normally a promising starting point is to consider what an individual may have that is of value to the other party but of which he or she may have a lesser supply. Resource theory (see Foa & Foa, 2012) provides a valuable perspective about the fungibility of exchange resources. For example, one person may offer expertise while the other helps him or her forge valuable relationships with others. Identifying factors that may contribute to the different forms of resource exchange may provide valuable insights about interpersonal trust in organizations.
Conducting Longitudinal Research
Longitudinal designs are needed to study the relationship between trust and other associated phenomena in organizations, such as justice perception and discretionary behavior. Longitudinal research can help to draw conclusion about the direction of causality and explore complex relationship patterns such as reciprocity. Also, trust is not a stable state but a dynamic phenomenon, and longitudinal design can help to understand the complex and dynamic role played by trust as time passes. Recent research has suggested that the requirement for trust is not the same at different times of team development cycle (Frazier et al., 2016; Jones & Shah, 2016). With the help of advanced statistical methods such as multilevel modeling, social network analysis, and dyadic analysis methods (e.g., the Actor-Partner Interdependence Model; Kashy & Kenny, 2000), researchers can potentially develop richer understandings of the patterns and processes of interpersonal trust in organizations.
Investigating Trust-Changing Incidents
We also call for more research that examines how events impact interpersonal trust in the organization. Our review of the trust repair literature suggests that researchers have made progress regarding factors affecting trust violation and strategies to repair a damaged trust relationship. Yet most studies in this line of research are laboratory based and use economic games or scenarios. The scenarios and games used in laboratory studies are rather limited in the type of violation that can be examined. In real organizational settings, individuals may be impelled by a large number of incidents to re-evaluate their relationships with others, bringing about potential increases or decreases in their levels of trust (Kramer & Lewicki, 2010). For example, a follower may decrease the perceived trustworthiness of his or her leader if the leader makes an unjustified promotion decision that disappoints the follower. On the positive side, an employee may tend to increase trust in a coworker after the coworker invests extra time and energy to accomplish critical but difficult goals in a big group project. In short, individuals are likely to re-evaluate their levels of trust in particular relationships after experiencing incidents that call their pre-existing trust beliefs into question. What features of incidents encourage individuals to substantially change their trust toward another individual? Do individual differences of the trustor and/or trustee play a role in such trust-alteration processes? The growing literature on “turning points” in conflict dynamics (Druckman, 2001; Jameson, Sohan, & Hodge, 2014) may be particularly useful to understand how incidents promote trust declines or increases.
Distinguishing Trust and Distrust
As we noted earlier in this article, scholars have argued that trust and distrust are distinct constructs. Distrust has been defined as “a lack of confidence in the other, a concern that the other may act so as to harm one, that he does not care about one’s welfare or intends to act harmfully, or is hostile” (Grovier, 1994, p. 240). A high level of trust is characterized by positive cognitions, such as hope and faith, and is associated with high satisfaction in the relationship (Lewicki et al., 1998; Kramer, 1999). By contrast, a high level of distrust is characterized by negative cognitions such as fear, skepticism, and suspicion and is related to high dissatisfaction in the relationship (Kramer, 1998, 1999; Lewicki et al., 1998). Kramer and Lewicki and colleagues also argued that trust and distrust in another individual are distinguishable and can coexist. However, with a few exceptions (e.g., Liao & Chun, 2016), existing research does not distinguish between trust and distrust, and as yet we lack an evidence-based nomological network to support this distinction and to serve as a guide for research. Consistent with emerging findings in other domains such as positive affect versus negative affect (e.g., Kaplan, Bradley, Luchman, & Haynes, 2009), trust and distrust may be related to different outcomes and impact outcomes through different pathways.
We conclude from our review that research on interpersonal trust within organizations has become increasingly vibrant in this new millennium, drawing extensively from theoretical frameworks that were developed in the 1990s. Yet it is difficult to integrate much of the extant research because the research models have tended to be narrowly trustor-centric or trustee-centric and do not consider dynamic processes in trust development. Given that the very recent trend in micro-organizational behavior in general has been toward strengthening designs and conducting investigations into complex causal processes, we are optimistic that such progress will be forthcoming in the next decade.
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