Friday, 21 February 2014

Trust at Work: Broken Promises and the Manager's Mirror

In our last post we introduced insights on trust in organisations from the symposium run by the Centre for Trust and Ethical Behaviour. We learned that surface features such as organisational prestige and size, as well as historical features such as your own experience or the organisations track record, influence how we look at organisations from the outside.


In this post, we continue by looking at how trust – or lack of trust – endures even in the face of contradictory events. And we see the particular importance of one person in shaping our trust in the organisation: our manager.

Michelle McGrath's presentation explored promises made and broken in the workplace. Her work focuses on the psychological contract – the unwritten contract between the workplace and an employee that they carry with them and use to view their working existence. One person may see their arrangement with the employer as a principally transactional one, where I do A in order to receive B. Another believes they are entering into a relationship with the employer, treating the situation as one based around a strong bond and mutual trust.

McGrath interviewed 30 people using a Critical Incident technique to identify and delve deeply into situations where they felt the employer had broken or exceeded a promise. Each participant was also categorised with respect to their psychological contract. Those with a relational contract treated over-delivery of a promise as a positive example of how the organisation valued them. And they were forgiving of promise-breaking too, rationalising it as situational rather than reflective of the organisation's agenda.

Those with a transactional contract, meanwhile, were unimpressed when a promise was exceeded. In their eyes, it just showed that the organisation was erratic, and they felt that 'anything good that happens is always short-lived.' Interestingly, this resigned attitude also extended to promise breaking: it was annoying but 'what else would you expect?' To an extent, the meaning of the contract overrode the events themselves, with participants continuing to see the employer through the same lens.

One caveat to this work is that the sample didn't contain extreme examples of promise-breaking, nor highly disaffected employees. After all, we know that when a relational contract is damaged sufficiently it can cause serious problems. The metaphor that comes to mind is that of a well-filled tyre on a fast car: encountering one or two pebbles on the road won't interfere with things - but a patch of broken glass is still a disaster in the making…

Attitude to managers account for 35%  per cent of the variance in organisational trust, making Alison LeGood's presentation on the topic highly relevant. Her evidence suggests that in some way we treat the strengths and failings of our managers as a mirror of how the organisation at large behaves, meaning that we take an ethical manager to imply an ethical organisation. This was demonstrated within a study that asked individuals to rate their managers - 201 within mid to senior level positions - on behaviours that fell across three areas:

* Integrity, including behavioural consistency
* Ability, such as demonstrating and delegating control
* Benevolence, such as open communication and delegating concerns

Individuals also rated different facets of trust in the organisation, which turned out to correlate with relevant behaviours of the manager: for instance, believing that your manager shows open communications makes it more likely you trust the organisation as a whole to be benevolent. For the Integrity and Ability factors, the relationship was stronger for more senior managers. But across every level Benevolent manager behaviour was associated with perceptions of a kinder workplace.

Whether employees assume their manager truly reflects the organisation's agenda, or are simply using them as a proxy to offer some information to navigate the complexities of organisational life, our managers are tied to whether we trust our workplaces.

The symposium provided a multi-faceted look at trust in organisations, that I hope these write-ups demonstrate. It alerts us to structural features of how an organisation is (size, prestige) and how it operates (communications, history) all shape the ‘outsider’s eye.’ It emphasises the power of developing relational psychological contracts, sturdy enough to absorb the occasional disappointment.  It reminds us that individual tendencies to trust are important, but the behaviour we see in the organisation – especially from our managers – is even more so. Some trust comes for free, but more is earned, and all must be kept.

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