Counterintuitive Leadership Research: Feeling Trusted by the Manager and Apologizing after a Mistake can Lower Trust while Acknowledging Others’ Negative Emotions Can Build Trust
Why does trust matter at work?
Trust is essential for positive workplace outcomes, but it has unfortunately been declining all over the world. The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that six out of ten people say they distrust until seeing evidence of trustworthiness. Moreover, people are not highly trusting of organizations; yet, among institutions including businesses, NGOs, the government, and the media, people trust businesses the most.1 In fact in a yearly global survey, companies such as the 2022 world top three 1) DHL Express (Germany), 2) Hilton (USA), and 3) Cisco (USA), which are awarded the title of a “Great Place to Work,” are characterized by trust; employees trust their leaders, have pride in their jobs, and enjoy interacting with their colleagues.2 Academic research supports the idea that trust is critical. Scholars consolidated results from over 100 studies with more than 25,000 participants and found that those who trust their leaders are less likely to quit, are more satisfied with their jobs, and are more committed to the organization.3
What exactly is trust?
Trust is a person’s willingness to be vulnerable to another based on a positive expectation and without monitoring.4 The person who is bestowing trust is the “trustor,” while the one receiving the trust is the “trustee”. The trustor evaluates the trustee on trustworthiness, which has three aspects (1) ability (i.e., competence to accomplish a task), (2) benevolence (i.e., trustor’s perception that the trustee wants to do good), and (3) level of integrity (i.e., having a moral compass). Each person also has a “propensity to trust,” or a natural tendency to be more or less inclined to trust others, although this can fluctuate5 ; thus, when deciding to trust someone, a trustor has his or her own propensity to trust but also evaluates the trustee on the three parts of trustworthiness.
1. Feeling trusted by the manager
It is obvious that feeling trusted by your manager is great, right? Although feeling trusted can lead to positive outcomes for employees, it can also lead to negative ones, so it is a double-edged sword!
About 200 London bus drivers were studied to better understand how employees react to feeling trusted. The bus drivers spent their time driving routes, but they interacted with managers at the start and end of the shift as well as throughout the day via radio. The study found that feeling trusted can lead to positives such as pride. However, feeling trusted can also make employees see their workload as heavy and it can make them become concerned about their reputation. This leads to exhaustion and impacts job performance negatively.6
2. Apologizing after breaking trust
Apologizing after a mistake seems like common sense! Yet, saying “I was wrong and I am sorry” is not always the best option!
An experiment with almost 700 college students examined trust repair. Researchers conducted the study by designing an experiment with multiple scenarios based on the type of trust violation (competence vs. integrity), the response to the violation (apology vs. denial), the format of the decision (individual vs. group decision) and the decision order (individual or group first). Results show that fixing broken trust is tougher with groups than with individuals. Groups and individuals are more trusting if the apology matches the violation. It is best to apologize for a competence-based violation (i.e., the violator did not have enough knowledge to accomplish the task) and to deny culpability for an integrity-based violation (i.e., the violator lied or stole information).7
3. Acknowledge others’ emotions to build trust
If a coworker looks sad or upset, those emotions should be ignored! Although avoidance is the less risky response, acknowledging these negative emotions can lead to stronger trust.
Across six different studies with a variety of participants including hospital workers, researcher found that when employees verbally acknowledge the feelings of others, they are seen as more trustworthy. In addition, those who recognize feelings (e.g., you seem annoyed) as opposed to the situation (e.g., looks like your coworkers are immature) are seen as more trustworthy. Furthermore, when employees’ negative emotions (e.g., sadness) are acknowledged, they feel seen, so this is a powerful avenue for increasing trust. 8
What to do next?
Recognize who the highly trusted employees are. Help them (or yourself) avoid unnecessary responsibility and seek social support.9
If trust is broken, talk to individuals instead of the whole group. Admit guilt and apologize only if the violation was due to a lack of competence!10
Do not be afraid to acknowledge coworkers’ negative feelings. If done authentically, it can increase trust.11
Baer, M. D., Dhensa-Kahlon, R. K., Colquitt, J. A., Rodell, J. B., Outlaw, R., & Long, D. M. (2015). Uneasy lies the head that bears the trust: The effects of feeling trusted on emotional exhaustion. Academy of Management Journal, 58(6), 1637-1657.
Baer, M. D., Matta, F. K., Kim, J. K., Welsh, D. T., & Garud, N. (2018). It's not you, it's them: Social influences on trust propensity and trust dynamics. Personnel Psychology, 71(3), 423-455.
Dirks, K. T., & Ferrin, D. L. (2002). Trust in leadership: Meta-analytic findings and implications for research and practice. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(4), 611.
Edelman Trust Barometer (2022). “The Trust 10”. Retrieved from: https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2022-01/Trust%2022_Top10.pdf
Great Place to Work (2022). “World’s Best Workplace 2022”. Retrieved from: https://greatplacetowork.me/2022-worlds-best-workplaces/#
Kim, P. H., Cooper, C. D., Dirks, K. T., & Ferrin, D. L. (2013). Repairing trust with individuals vs. groups. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 120(1), 1-14.1 You et al. (2021)
Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H., & Schoorman, F. D. (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 709-734
Yu, A., Berg, J. M., & Zlatev, J. J. (2021). Emotional acknowledgment: How verbalizing others’ emotions fosters interpersonal trust. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 164, 116-135.