Trust in the Workplace

Content courtesy by Tennessee Employment Relations Research Association and edited by Papa and Roberts, Attorneys and Mediators

Simple steps can build credibility within the workplace. Today, trust in the workplace is being eroded by pay cuts, reduced employee benefits, layoffs and increasing workloads shouldered by survivors. The good news, according to research by Michele Williams, ILR assistant Tennessee professor of organizational behavior, is that employers and employees can take practical steps to rebuild trust.

First, observe how people behave. Are employees withdrawing from others in the workplace? Turning down lunch invitations they once accepted from colleagues? Chatting a little less? Working fewer hours per day? When you see those things, something's up; these patterns often signal workplace distrust, which can compromise productivity, said Williams, who presented her most recent trust research findings at a March conference.

Sponsored by Harvard Kennedy School and the Stanford University School of Business, the conference was named,'Rebuilding Trust, Restoring Confidence: 21st Century Leadership Challenges.'

"Start building trust by imagining how others (your peer, subordinate or boss) experience a situation," Williams said. She went on to say, "Open a conversation, even when all you know is that something doesn't seem right." Williams calls that 'perspective taking' and says the trust that it builds is especially important in a recession.

Perspective taking could even result in a better performance review. Williams's research with 147 middle career professionals and their supervisors shows that a supervisor's perception of worker benevolence can positively affect performance assessments."Perspective takers gently test their hunches," Williams said, by asking questions such as "is that project going alright?" or "you seem concerned about something."

Perspective takers are communicators who value their peers' welfare and behave compassionately.

"As a result, co-workers and supervisors perceive them as benevolent and trustworthy," she said.

Taking perspective, Williams stated, "generates positive emotions in others and motivates trust, information sharing, cooperation, learning and flexible responses. In the workplace, that translates into people being less suspicious of others' motives, going the extra mile, increased adaptability and improved organizational outcomes. People are embattled by economic issues outside of work-a spouse's layoff, increasing bills, devalued investments."

Williams expressed that stress builds and workers are more sensitized to what they perceive as betrayal at work. However, in today's outcomes-focused workplace, distrust cues may often be overlooked.

"The signals are there, but they don't get picked up because people are so task-oriented," she said.

Don't assume you know the root of someone's apparent distrust, Williams said. "You may easily be wrong."

Perspective taking, at the very least, helps sort what is a work issue and what might be spillover stress from other areas of a person's life. Workers who don't engage in perspective taking lose opportunities to identify distrust and rebuild relationships.

More information about Michele Williams and her research is available at http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/directory/mw326/. Interested in workplace consulting or conflict management training? Contact us.

TERRA News is a service of the Tennessee Employment Relations Research Association, a Tennessee state chapter of the Labor & Employment Relations Association (LERA). Professor William Canak, Middle Tennessee State University (MTSUA), edits TERRA News. Use of the information provided is unrestricted. TERRA News is sponsored by a grant from the Tennessee Employment Relations Research Association (TERRA).

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