Why Do Managers Behave in a Trustworthy Manner? Latest Research Findings

Trust-2What is the meaning of interpersonal trust for organizations? A recent Forbes article argues that trust between managers and employees is foundational for their relationship and the management process overall. Echoing the importance attributed to trust in the popular media, trust is being increasingly studied also in academic settings. Making further contributions to existing academic knowledge on the topic, my latest research (Reiche et al., 2014) examines the link between subordinates’ prosocial behaviors (e.g. helping a colleague, defending the organization in public) and managerial trustworthy behavior.

Specifically, together with several colleagues, we study whether employees’ organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) leads to managerial trustworthy behavior, and if this link is mediated by managers’ affective trust perceptions. Moreover, we look into boundary conditions of manager-subordinate trust relationships, hypothesizing that collectivism moderates the indirect link between employee’s OCB and managerial trustworthy behavior through manager’s affective trust.

Based on quantitative data from 741 managers and 2111 subordinates from 18 countries our results suggest the following:

  • Managers’ affective trust in subordinates mediates the relationship between subordinates’ OCBs and managerial trustworthy behavior. As such, in our data subordinates’ OCB significantly positively related to managers’ affective trust, which in turn positively related to managerial trustworthy behavior.
  • Societal-level collectivism moderates the aforementioned relationships, such that the mediating effect of managers’ affective trust between subordinates’ OCBs and managerial trustworthy behavior was weaker. In highly collectivist cultures such as Colombia, Pakistan and Peru affective trust does not mediate the relationships at all. This suggests that in collectivist settings, indirect reciprocation is much more a moral obligation than a voluntary action.
  • Our results also suggest that affective trust is not a necessary condition for managers to behave trustworthily as a response to subordinates’ OCBs, as we found a direct and positive relationship between employees’ OCBs and managerial trustworthy behavior across all cultures.

Based on the results our study offers several suggestions for managerial practice.

Practical implications

Firstly, in contrast to the prevailing wisdom that trustworthy behaviors are risky as they make managers vulnerable, our research suggests a more positive outlook. Specifically, we propose that managers’ trustworthy behavior serves to indirectly reciprocate and signal the relevance of subordinates’ OCBs for the organization, which may entail positive benefits for both the employee and the wider organization. However, we suggest managers to carefully assess employees’ underlying motives for their OCBs to avoid reciprocating citizenship behaviors that are performed out of impression management or other opportunistic motives.

Secondly, given the globalization of the workforce, our study suggests that global managers need to be able to interpret how the cultural context impacts on their interactions with subordinates. Our findings suggest that in individualist societies, whether managers trust their subordinates will determine the extent to which they indirectly reciprocate subordinates’ OCBs with trustworthy behaviors. In contrast, in collectivist settings the mediating effect of affective trust is weaker (and in some cases non-existent). This implies that if a manager from an individualistic country starts working in a collectivist society, he/she will need to adjust to reciprocating employees’ prosocial behaviors even without having developed personal feelings of trust.

Finally, it should be noted that by inducing trust and trustworthy behavior, employees’ citizenship behaviors contribute to developing trusting leadership styles, and hence to the development of a trusting organizational culture. As such, we suggest that apart from immediate performance results of prosocial behaviors, the resulting reciprocation of trust and trustworthy behaviors may create long-term effects for individual and organizational performance. In other words, indirect reciprocity may serve well for building closer social bonds and trust within the organization. Therefore organizations need to place more emphasis on employees’ prosocial behaviors and managers’ indirect reciprocation of such behaviors, both through role modeling among senior staff, as well as taking into account such behaviors in the selection and appraisal systems.


Further reading:

Reiche, B. S., Cardona, P., Lee, Y.-T., Canela, M. et al. (2014). Why do Managers Engage in Trustworthy Behavior? A Multilevel Cross-Cultural Study in 18 Countries. Personnel Psychology, 67, 1, 61-98.

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