Tuesday, 18 February 2014

It's About Trust: Expectations & Interactions

Trust arrives on foot, but leaves on horseback. These were the closing words of a fascinating symposium dubbed "The How, Why & For Whom of Organisational Level Trust," introducing research from Coventry University’s Centre for Trust and Ethical Behaviour. We’re covering the symposium in this post and another later this week.

Trusting someone means you are prepared to let yourself be in a place of vulnerability, in the belief that the other person will not let you down. Low trust is associated with a range of organisational problems, such as low motivation, low commitment, and cynicism, as well as intention to leave. And higher trust has active benefits - in an article freely available online, it is shown to be associated with putting in extra effort in the form of organisational citizenship behaviours such as helping others or speaking out about improvements, and ultimately in better organisational performance. Trust matters. So how do organisations become trusted?

The symposium kicked off with Prof Rosalind Searle’s talk exploring what draws a new hire to put more trust in their new workplace - for example, when they perceive the organisation as prestigious. To my surprise, those joining a smaller organisation were less trusting. Granted, it can be reassuring to know that your employer is well-established, hopefully with mechanisms and policies developed over time to give you some protection. But Searle’s claim also suggests smaller workplaces aren't fully capitalising on their more intimate scale and personal familiarity. Further research is needed to identify the specifics of what is dampening trust here.

There is another crucial factor that influences our general trust in a workplace, and that is our 'propensity to trust:' an enduring trait reflecting the stable component of how trusting we are across contexts. While this is something that organisations can’t directly influence, it can be useful to understand the impact of low propensity to trust, especially if your recruitment for a role may lean towards someone with that trait.

Searle also took us through another way we relate to organisations: as a consumer or service user. In this role, we have to take even more on trust than as an organisational insider. For instance, most of us don't scrutinise the food sourcing practices of our supermarkets, we just trust that their meat is what they say it is. When that trust is lost, it can have substantial consequences.

Evidence suggests many factors influence consumer trust globally, differing from region to region. For example, endorsements from other users are crucial in Asia, whereas relationship history - how you personally have been treated to date - matters as much or more to US and European consumers.  It’s possible this could dovetail with the collective-individualistic differences between cultures, which we know influence some consumer behaviours such as complaints. Meanwhile, transparent communications - such as breaking bad news stories or sharing details of internal workings such as mergers -  is particularly important in business-to-business contexts.

Our surface interactions with organisations, then, are shaped by certain expectations and information sources, as are our attitudes to them as a new entrant. But once we are part of the organisation, how is trust earned and maintained? Check in later this week for our second report.

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