06 Jul. 2017 | Comments (0)
In the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer survey, only 37% of global respondents rated CEOs to be sufficiently credible, continuing the pattern of low trust in recent years. These results are worrisome because within the organization, trust in organizational leaders is linked to employees’ intention to stay, compliance with strategic decisions, and unit performance.
Corporate leaders can improve how credible they seem by focusing on the relationships employees have with their frontline leaders. In our research study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Cheri Ostroff and I found that by focusing on these relationships, senior leaders can improve the degree to which employees in the organization view them. Trust, in other words, trickles up.
In our study, we tested whether employees who trusted their frontline leaders subsequently trusted their senior organizational leaders. In general, employees have many more day-to-day interactions with their frontline leaders and supervisors than with senior organizational leaders and know them better, observing how they deal with problems, implement strategy, and communicate with their teams.
We drew on the notion of trust transfer, which takes place when individuals use their trust in a more familiar entity to gauge their trust in a less familiar entity. Trust transfer has been documented to occur between individuals, brands, and organizations. We combined our trickle-up model with a theory called group value model, which states that fair treatment by leaders symbolically lets employees know that they are valued members of the organization.
We found that trust transferred up when frontline leaders exhibited behaviors that were perceived to show high procedural justice, such as making decisions in an unbiased manner and listening to followers’ concerns. In other words, when frontline leaders were perceived as being more fair, employees who trusted their frontline leaders had more trust in senior organizational leaders.
We also found that trust was more likely to trickle up for those employees who were lower on the cultural value of vertical collectivism. These employees tended to value their individual freedoms over obedience and authority and were concerned about fairness and rights, so frontline leaders’ procedural justice behaviors acted as a stronger trigger for their trust transfer.
In the final part of our trickle-up model, we compared the effects of trust in frontline leaders and trust in senior leaders. We found that even though trust in frontline leaders was important because it influenced trust in top leadership, trust in top leadership contributed to the organization’s overall well-being by exerting a stronger impact on employee performance. This makes sense, because trust in frontline leaders may only affect employee behaviors that are related to or observable by the frontline leaders. In contrast, trust in senior organizational leaders can prompt employees to internalize organizational goals, which influence a wider range of employee behaviors, including those that are not directly related to frontline leaders.
These findings point to the importance for senior organizational leaders of building trust among employees. The good news is that an effective way to cultivate trust in senior leaders is by supporting trust in frontline leaders. Employees who trust their frontline leaders and observe these leaders treating employees justly are more likely to trust the top leaders in the organization.
A good place to start with training of frontline leaders would be to strengthen trust-building skills of frontline leaders — including upholding professional integrity and genuinely caring for employees’ well-being and development — and to make sure they act fairly in making decisions and allocating rewards or resources.
Frontline leaders serve a vital role in interpreting and enacting organizational policies and practices for employees. Both management and frontline leaders need to recognize that, from the employees’ perspective, frontline leaders represent the organization and influence how employees perceive senior leaders in the organization.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 07/06/17.
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