Reflecting about what nurtures personal and professional relationships, we are probably quick to think about trust as a main ingredient. And when you are asked what trust means, you probably think ‘less control’. If I trust you, I shouldn’t need or want to control you, right? Well, this logic is challenged as soon as you become a parent because parent-child relationships—even though built on trust—require some control, especially at a younger age of the child. Hence, the two concepts do not seem to be quite as contradictory anymore, do they?!
Indeed, although the concepts of trust and control are seemingly conflicting in nature, several relationship contexts, including manager-subordinate relationships, seem to require both to some extent. The debate whether trust and control complement or substitute each other is an ongoing debate also among scholars. Based on the substitution perspective of research, trust and control are two different sides of the same coin, so it is rather one or the other approach. The complementarity perspective, on the other hand, sees the two concepts as mutually reinforcing and jointly contributing to a cooperative relationship between manager and subordinate.
To advance the ongoing debate about the dynamics of these two concepts, together with my colleagues Outila, Mihailova and Piekkari (in press), we undertook a qualitative study to investigate the trust-control link in the context of Russian subsidiaries of a Finnish multinational corporation (MNC). Specifically, we took a communicative perspective on the trust-control link, asking how Russian managers and Finnish expatriates use and perceive communication to nurture trust and to exercise control.
For our qualitative case study, we interviewed 86 Russian managers and employees, and 13 Finnish expatriates working for the Finnish MNC in Russia. For the MNC subsidiary we researched, trustis an inherent part of the company’s values, leadership and HR practices. At the same time, the researched subsidiaries in Russia provided us with a different cultural context, as Finns in general believe that most people and institutions can be trusted, and Russia, in contrast, is a society with low levels of trust and high need for control.
The study results indicated that Russian managers and subordinates emphasised the importance of both trust and control in manager-subordinate relationship, and saw them as complementary. Although trust appeared to be a foundation for manager-subordinate relationships, it also became evident from the interviews that trust in Russia can never be complete: ‘trust, but control’, as a famous Russian saying goes. For Russian employees, the complementarity of trust and control was natural, as the former meant relying on the employee’s abilities to complete the task, and the latter called for monitoring its timely fulfilment.
By contrast, Finnish expatriates expressed more of a substitutive rather than complementary understanding of the trust-control link in Russia. They perceived a high importance of control and considered trust to have less impact in the Russian workplace. As per the perception of one Finnish expatriate manager, ‘Russian managers only trust their closest networks, mainly relatives and old friends; subordinates are not usually included in this group and therefore require more control’. Finns also sensed the acceptance and expectation of control from Russian subordinates, who would perceive their managers to be ‘stupid, if not exercising control’. As such, for the Russian managers and employees the dialectical interplay between trust and control was evident, whereas for the Finnish expatriates it was less so.
Looking more closely at informal communicative activities for nurturing trust and exercising control, we found that Russian managers used socializing and informal dialogues not only to create trusting relationship, but also to informally control their subordinates. As one interviewed manager said, ‘everything goes in the form of dialogue, orally’. Apart from socializing with subordinates, managers tended to show support and participate in the ongoing work processes of their employees, exhibiting so-called process control. Both Russian managers and employees also saw task verification, explanations and advising as informal control processes. Trust is further nourished by information sharing and openness. As one of the interviewees put it, it is important that ‘subordinates hear the information from me first’. Based on our research, we conclude that through informal communicative activities such as socializing, participation, and information sharing—and the different functions they play—trust and control can co-exist and complement each other.
The finding that the dialectics of trust and control were recognised differently by Russians and Finns can be explained with the help of Hall’s (1976) classic theory of high and low context cultures. In high context cultures, such as Russia, the context in which the message is expressed and how it is expressed is often as important as the message itself. Finnish expatriates in our study missed the subtleties of Russian communication patterns that were conveyed in dialectical messages, and hence perceived trust and control as substitutes.
All in all, our study emphasizes the importance of communication to foster interpersonal relationships for MNCs entering the Russian market. Depending on the culture, various forms of communication may be perceived in different ways, and in the high context Russian culture, informal communication seems to play a crucial role in perceptions of the trust-control link. In other words, intercultural communication competence should go far beyond mere foreign language skills, and also focus on enhancing cultural skills of expatriates and their abilities to comprehensively grasp salient features of the local context. Further, we normally assume that trust is essential for effective manager-subordinate relationships. However, our findings suggest that control in Russia may be a necessary precondition for nurturing trust. If Russian subordinates perceive the control exercised by their managers as care and interest in subordinates’ work, control actually becomes a source of nurturing trust with these employees. These different interpretations of communication, trust and control point to the many challenges that foreign MNCs may experience when operating in Russia.