A black and white cartoon illustration of corinthian pillars.

Building Organizational Trust

The relationship between the employee and their manager is one of the most important in the company. Trust produces a positive effect on problem solving, performance, citizenship behavior, cooperation, and communication. Yet what is trust and what ways can an organization build the trust necessary to realize these outcomes?

Trust is a social phenomenon where the party has an expectation that the other will, in an unforced way, remain benevolent towards them. Trust occurs within an environment of dependence on each other. In an organization, these parties are the employer and employee manifested in three distinct relationships: between employer and employee, the employee and the employer, and employees with other employees.

Trust, Dependence, and Risk

Trust is necessary in organizations precisely because employers and employees are dependent on each other. The level of this dependence varies based on the strength of the labor pool, the relative work morale of employees and of the society (Lamsa & Pucetaite, 2006). Dependence incurs risk—trust mitigates that risk. 

The Context-Sensitive Model of Organizational Trust graphs dependence against trust, revealing four types of organizations that Lamsa & Pucetaite (2006) call Position A, B, C, and D. Position A organizations have a low dependence on the labor pool and a correspondingly low level of trust in employees. The employees in these situations is also low. Since both the morale and trust levels are the same, the arrangement is known as a “match.”

Opposite of Position A is Position D where employees have a high work morale and the organization trusts its employees. Employees and managers are viewed as “fellow partners” meaning that employees no longer need to fight for their interests as they trust the employer. This is ideal because of the benefits that result from a high trust environment. 

Positions B and C are mismatched. Position B organizations have low work morale employees, yet the business has a high level of trust. Position C is the opposite where employees have a high work morale and the business has a low trust of employees. Based on Resource Dependence Theory, Lamsa & Pucetaite (2006) suggest that companies in B or C positions adapt towards either A or D. Many small businesses are susceptible to falling into a Position B because they tend to trust their employees to a higher degree, thereby opening themselves up to fraud. Compounding the problem, they often have fewer internal controls to detect and fight fraud. Even when fraud is discovered, these companies often have fewer resources for fighting it.

The Two Aspects of Trust

Trust involves vulnerability and risk in an environment where the trustor (such as the organization) has a positive attitude towards the behavior of the trustee (the employee) in a risky situation. Because trust is an attitude, it has both cognitive and affective components (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975).

Cognition-based trust

Cognition-based trust evaluates the probability of future trust based on the other party’s past actions. Trust involves both vulnerability and risk. The more the risk pays off, the more likely they are to trust the other party in the future. This type of trust lasts only a short amount of time and, according to Lamsa & Pucetaite (2006), it is necessary to transcend cognition-based trust and move to affect-based. This may be one-sided—for example the employer trusting an employee because of how that employee has behaved in the past.

Affect-based trust

Affect-based trust requires a mutual trust—employees who trust the organization to have their best interests in mind and the employer to trust that employees will act fairly and honestly. This form of trust is required to move towards a “high trust/high work morale” type environment described later.

The benefits of affect-based trust are that it may lead to “citizenship behavior” which occurs when an employee feels valued. Such an employee will identify with the company and contribute more to the company than they would otherwise. This type of trust is required for sustaining company growth.

Building Trust

Overall, building trust comes down to repeated positive interactions. The importance of trust to a well-functioning company makes building trust a primary concern for an organization. Any organization will benefit from trust building. Those organizations in low work morale environments can progress to becoming more productive through raising the work morale not only at their own company, but also in the society. If the company is able to increase the work morale of its own employees, that will become a scarce resource that they have access to. As Lamsa & Pucetaite (2006) saw, “External control increases a company’s operating costs, and an atmosphere of fear hinders employees’ creativity, development of innovative ideas and exercise of professional competences” (p. 135).

Impacting Trust

One of the primary items to discover is what impacts trust. Trust rests on three pillars—open communication, strong procedural justice, and employee empowerment. These pillars not only stand independently but also reinforce each other, creating a robust structure that fosters trust in the organizational ecosystem. 

Open communication develops trust through helping predict employees’ behavior. To succeed, the employees must also have the support needed to demonstrate the desired behavior. The ability to predict the employee’s behavior is a main component of open communication. Other important aspects are sharing information, limiting political behavior, and supporting an environment of open communication. Sharing information reduces fear and promotes reciprocal communication. Each shared positive interaction builds trust between employer and employee. Reducing political behavior is another aspect that creates open communication. Without the need to worry about playing political games, employees and managers have more latitude to discuss what’s important. These activities contribute to supporting a culture of open communication that builds trust.

Procedural justice describes how the organization implements and then communicates policies and procedures. Consistent policy application, valuing employee participation, implementing an accessible appeals procedure, and providing accurate data all contribute to higher trust. “It is not just being treated with dignity and respect but also being given adequate information regarding these procedures” (Cropanzano and Greenberg, 1997).

Mishra and Spreitzer (1998) identify employee empowerment with four beliefs about the employer-employee relationship. First, the employee must have a sense of meaning about their job. They want to know that the work they are doing is contributing to the corporate goals, specifically is it “important, valuable, and worthwhile” (Mishra & Spreitzer, 1998). Competence means that workers are able to make choices in their work. Self-determination is where employees have the freedom in the way they do their work. Finally, impact is the belief that the individual’s work is important and significant to the business. 

These three pillars—open communication, procedural justice, and employee empowerment—support the organizational structure. As trust is cultivated through transparency, procedural fairness, and empowered employees, it strengthens the bonds between employers and employees. This creates a more resilient, collaborative, and trusting organizational culture.

The Stages of Trust Building

With these pillars of trust building in mind, it is time to look at the stages organizations typically move through to arrive at a higher trust culture. Lamsa & Pucetaite (2006) describe the steps on the way to trust building as the processual approach. The five stages describe how an organization can minimize risk as they move to a higher trust environment, even if at the beginning they are in a low work morale environment.

Stage 1 is called Opposing Parties. It is characterized by very little trust, the parties may be new to each other. Only the lowest risk trust is extended as each side battles for their own interests. As the number of positive interactions increases consistently, the organization enters stage 2, Calculators. Here, the parties can accurately predict how the other will act and the harm that would come from transgressing that trust. Next the organization reaches a point where the company includes employees in decision-making and management begins to participate more. This is stage 3, Acquaintances. During this stage, it is critical that employees be supported with the tools necessary to achieve the standards set for them. Open communication is especially important during this stage as employers and employees learn the values and goals of the other. 

As trust continues to increase, the organization enters stage 4, Moral Acquaintances. Where once the company tightly controlled behavior, employees begin to act in line with those expectations on their own. The company begins to put policies in place that show they care about the employees’ well-being. This is a good sign that employees have moved to a higher work morale. Cognition-based trust gives way to affect-based trust as employers and employees see that the other has their best interests in mind. Employees are more likely to exhibit citizenship behavior—that is, identifying themselves with the company. On this trajectory, the organization will reach stage 5, Fellow partners. Here, employers and employees no longer need to fight for their own values as they are each understood and supported by the other. They can accurately predict how the other will act in a given situation and can plan into the future.

Closing Thoughts

Raising trust in the workplace produces a number of benefits including better problem solving, performance, citizenship behavior, cooperation, and communication. It sits on three pillars—open communication, strong procedural justice, and employee empowerment. Trust is built over time, often processing through five stages and moving from low, cognition-based trust to high, affect-based mutual trust. Yet this is not automatic. It requires intentionality and willingness to put in the time and effort needed to move up the path.

Though not a focus of the research studies, there may be implications not only for human relationships, but also for building trust between software and its human operator. Let’s look at this through the three pillars.

Open Communication with Software

In their literature review, Tzafrir et al. (2004) identified three contributors to a manager’s level of openness in communication—sharing information, encouragement of open communication, and limiting political behavior. Yet these components might also apply to software design.

  1. Sharing information reduces fear. Software that illuminates how it calculates outputs makes it easier for users to trust it. This is particularly true of automation projects. When users see how the software transforms data, they can better predict how to get the software to do what they want. Through knowing the users’ mental models and goals, the designer can plan what users need to feel this sense of trust.
  2. Encouraging open communication is perhaps a bit on the nose for creating more openness in communication, but is nonetheless important.  Software can accomplish this by providing clear, useful information. This helps users see the value the software provides while reducing confusion. Another way software can encourage open communication is through personalization. Allowing users to make it their own increases how much they value and trust it. This is called the IKEA effect.
  3. Limiting political behavior means the software should behave like a  considerate human. This is a key design principle discussed at length in chapter 8, Digital Etiquette of Alan Cooper, et al’s About Face (2014)A fuller discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this article, though this chapter is well worth reading. One tasty sample that directly relates this concept back to increased trust: 

“Products that go the extra mile in looking out for users by helping them prevent embarrassing mistakes—and not berating them for it—will quickly earn their trust and devotion. All other things equal, considerate product design is one of the things, and perhaps even the thing, that distinguishes an only passable app from a truly great one” (Cooper et al., 2014, p. 190).

User Experience Metrics

The literature reviewed here suggests some possibilities of metrics to track how well the software creates trust. These are only possibilities to consider and ought to be held up against your persona set’s goals to determine what your audience’s priorities. UX metrics answer the question, “If the team does a great job, how does that help achieve someone achieve a goal or have a great experience?” No universal set of UX metrics exists—each product has a different outcome it is designed to produce.

UX Success

UX Success metrics are those that describe the achievement of the desired outcome. For example, a success metric for a trustworthy product might be how many people self-describe as fans of the software. This is an example of citizenship behavior and be a sign of a high trust, high morale organizations.

UX Progress Metrics

UX Progress metrics measure how well the product is performing on its goals. One example might be checking product market fit using something like Sean Ellis’ question or Rahul Vohra’s product market fit engine. 

Problem-Value Metrics

Problem-Value metrics measure the obstacles that people must overcome in order to achieve an important goal. For example, support calls about the product should drop accompanied by a rise in retention. This could signal that the product has reduced the number of problems it was designed to address. 

Value Discovery Metrics

Value Discovery metrics are data that provides additional value to the users’ experience. The literature has suggested that there are plenty of opportunities to open up access to data and doing so could contribute to supporting open communication. Find out what data other users need to be effective and evaluate whether that information is already collected elsewhere in the product. Surfacing this data could unlock potential your users didn’t know was there. Your persona set is your guide here. What they value should be supported by the app.

Wrapping Up

Embedding trust into applications and organizations requires a profound understanding of users’ goals. Building upon this foundation, design teams can effectively instill trust into both organizational structures and software systems. The principles applicable to team-building are equally pertinent to crafting reliable and trustworthy software. Armed with these insights, designers are well-prepared to integrate trust into their organizations and software applications.


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