When is trust bad for us?

March 11, 2018 - 06:25

The paradox of trust: Research suggests that trust at work can lead to exclusion and stress among colleagues.

Surely a workplace with a high degree of trust is always a good thing? But trust is complex and it can also have a dark side. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Trust is almost always portrayed as essential for human life. In the work place, trusting relations between colleagues can foster a positive work environment, which in turn enhances efficient collaboration and knowledge sharing, both of which are essential to stay competitive.

No doubt, trust is the most important and desired ingredient in organisational life. When your organisation is built on trust, you feel empowered and, suddenly, risky actions feel less risky and it seems less daunting to enter unknown markets and new business relations.

So, in general, trust is the best you can wish for in a company! Or is it?

Throughout Scandinavia we’re renown for being trusting: Surveys show that Scandinavian citizens trust each other more than elsewhere in the world, except for China where the level of social trust is also very high.

And in the work place, Scandinavian leadership style, based on trust, is celebrated as following the overall philosophy of leading and working within the confines of ‘freedom with responsibility.’ However, trust also has a dark side. Besides the possibility of trusting too blindly, my research has shown how high levels of trust can actually lead to stress and even exclusion of certain groups in the work place.

Read More: Why do the Nordics trust one another?

Trust: A complex phenomenon

Actually, when you think about situations in which you decided to trust someone or something and situations in which you didn’t, the complexity of trust becomes more apparent. Trust is not as straight forward as some research might suggest. For example, do all Scandinavians really trust everybody with everything, no matter what? Wouldn’t that be blind trust?

Once a phenomenon, such as trust, is scrutinised by researchers like me, we often end up dissecting it. What we find is that trust is a process and we learn to trust over time, based on a variety of so-called “trustworthiness beliefs”.

These are perceived ability, benevolence, and integrity in the other. Ability can for instance be understood as the ability of your superior to make the right decisions at the right moment. Benevolence is defined as a belief that the one you trust wants to do good and will not harm you in any way. An example would be that you as an employee feel that your organisation cares for you.

Lastly, integrity points to the moral aspect of trust and can be defined as your belief in the other’s loyalty; in other words, you may trust your employees with crucial or even disturbing information and trust them to keep it to themselves.

Trust is not as straight forward as some research might suggest. For example, do all Scandinavians really trust everybody with everything, no matter what? Wouldn’t that be blind trust? (Photo: Shutterstock)

But while a theoretical discussion might provide us with a lot of insight, I find it much more relevant to see and understand how trust develops in a real world situation, at the work place.

Read More: How to win your boss's trust

Trust in a typical Danish work place

My research focuses on a typical workplace in Denmark. It is a rather successful, small-medium sized company (SME), which over the years developed into an international player with several sales subsidiaries in Europe and sales-agents in the US, Russia, Asia, and the Near East.

Here, trust plays out within cultural complexity, which is arguably the norm for almost any company in the world. By this, we mean that the workforce is comprised of individuals from various backgrounds. And often, even SMEs have subsidiaries outside their home country which means that they operate in different nation states, legal systems, languages, and even time zones.

Surprisingly, even though everybody seems to speak of globalization, not much research has been done on trust from a cultural perspective. Even less research has been conducted on trust in SMEs and none is based on extensive fieldwork characterised by months of operations and many hours of interviews at an international SME.

Thus, within the academic world not much is known about how trust is understood, established, broken, and repaired in an intercultural work context, while many companies tend to ignore it altogether—they simply do not have the time to dedicate to international human resources.

Read More: Trust makes our hearts beat as one

Danish employees “simply trust” each other

While observing and talking about leader-employee interactions for a prolonged time at this company’s headquarters in Denmark and four of its European sales subsidiaries, I learned a lot of the complexities of trusting in an international, or rather, intercultural environment.

I could confirm many of the theoretical notions of trust. For example, almost all employees of none-Danish background told me that they first had to learn to trust their Danish leaders; this notion confirms our understanding of trust development as a process, whereby trust is built over time based on a combination of trustworthiness beliefs.

Also, somewhat in line with the theory on social trust and Scandinavian leadership, many Danish leaders said that they ‘simply trust’ their employees, despite not knowing them.

That trust leads to exclusion of others may come as a surprise. Institutionalised trust can lead to the exclusion of those who are perceived to be different or behaving differently from the norms established by the company’s powerful players. This exclusion often, though not always follows differences in ethnicity, gender, or nationality. (Photo: Shutterstock)

But there were a number of incidents, which I couldn’t make sense of.

Read More: Trust creates a welfare state – not vice versa

Trust can lead to the exclusion of others

The most interesting and perhaps surprising finding was that trust is a paradoxical phenomenon in relation to at least three aspects:

1) Trust can be understood and exercised as control, which for some of the observed employees led to taking on extremely heavy workloads, which in turn resulted in stress.

As hinted at earlier, leaders may simply chose – consciously or unconsciously - to bestow a high level of trust in their employees. As a consequence, employees very often feel the obligation to reciprocate this trust which can result in taking on too much work. In addition, they might not even talk to their manager about it as they simply think that they should pay back the trust bestowed on them.

2) Trust may lead to the exclusion of others. I am talking about those you do not really identify with or have much in common with.

This is especially true for those work places where such identification-based trust has been institutionalised and is fostered by those in powerful positions.

3) Trust in itself is understood in a variety of ways and what organisational members perceive as portraying trustworthiness depends on a number of interacting organisational, societal, cultural, and individual factors.

For example, many of the subsidiary employees had minority backgrounds which made them more vulnerable as they were perceived by headquarters to be ‘fortunate’ to have found a job at the company. For these employees, trusting their Danish leaders to be loyal – for instance providing critical feedback in appraisal interviews – was connected to far more risks than for a Danish employee at the Danish headquarters. Also, how trust is understood, for instance where trust is ‘felt’ and how trust is ‘shown’ varied between gender while it wasn’t influenced by ethnicity. These are just some of the findings indicating that trust is highly contextual; it depends on the situation, the individual and his or her own story, and the broader context.

Read More: Racially mixed schools create more trust in immigrants

Exclusion from trust can negatively impact minorities


Book at free presentation on this topic in your workplace

Heidrun Knorr is part of the Book a Researcher program.

You can book a presentation from Heidrun up until 3 April 2018 to be held in Denmark, between 20 and 26 April during the Danish Science Festival 2018.

Other participating researchers can also book Heidrun for a presentation.

The title of her talk is The paradox of trust: Trust as including and excluding practice at the work place.

Book Heidrun here.

That trust leads to exclusion of others may come as a surprise. This means that all organisational members who identify with each other in some way tend to take it for granted that they trust each other. And this type of trust becomes a part of the organisation, its culture and thus, its system.

In turn, this means that those who are perceived to be different or behaving differently from the norms established by the company’s powerful players can be fully or partly excluded. They may find, for instance that the next promotion does not go to them but to a colleague down the hall. Or perhaps they feel left out of decision making processes or overlooked for a new company car and so forth.

Hence, instead of empowering daring actions, trust can in these situations suddenly restrict actions. And while this exclusion does not always follow differences in ethnicity, gender or nationality, it unfortunately often does.

For example, in my study over 90 per cent of the subsidiary employees with minority backgrounds were not included in decision making nor were they promoted, even though the majority of them would have the necessary competences and educational backgrounds to be considered for promotion. As a consequence, the company loses valuable knowledge; employees become less committed to their work, less motivated, and might even leave the company.

Read More: Most immigrants trust the system

It’s good to trust, but be aware of the downsides

Given the complexities of how and when we trust in the workplace, and this is just one firm, I argue that trust-based collaboration and leadership is something we most likely will never be able to learn in a single training or management course.

And as valuable as trust is, it has its downsides as well.

So, the next time you trust your employees with somewhat risky tasks, make sure that you follow up to find out whether they can handle the pressure or not. Or, the next time you think about promoting or simply acknowledging your co-workers, take a minute to reflect on how these actions might be perceived by your international colleagues.


Read this article in Danish at ForskerZonen, part of Videnskab.dk