What COVID-19 Teaches Us About the Importance of Trust at Work

Despite having technological tools at their disposal, many managers are uncomfortable with having employees work from home. Since home has also become the office in the case of employees who work remotely during the pandemic, complaints abound that managers often try to control and monitor workers more closely than they did in the past. This signals a lack of trust between managers and employees, writes David De Cremer in this opinion piece. Organizations that are able to develop strategies to build trust between managers and employees will see stronger work relationships as well as performance.  

 De Cremer is provost’s chair and professor in management and organizations at NUS Business School at the National University of Singapore. He is the founder and director of the Center on AI Technology for Humankind, a platform developing research and education promoting a human-centered approach to AI development. His most recent book is Leadership by Algorithm: Who Leads and Who Follows in the AI Era?

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the functioning of organizations in several ways. One consequence of these disruptions that we have seen emerge quickly is the struggle of managers to lead employees who are out of sight. The sudden transition from having employees physically work in the office to remote work has revealed an ugly truth: Most companies fail in building trusting work relationships.

Although many technological solutions are at our disposal, many business leaders have felt — and still feel — uncomfortable with having their employees work from home. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, employees indeed signal the negative impact that their managers have on their life at home, which has now also become their work place. Complaints abound that managers care more about productivity than the health of their employees; that online meetings are becoming means to monitor and assess work attitude; and that little sympathy is shown about the fact that work and family life has now become an integrated reality with all the corresponding disturbances.

All these complaints have to do with the observation that most managers try to deal with the uncertainty of remote work by controlling and monitoring the employees’ work even more than before. And it is clear that such a controlling strategy backfires! Displaying controlling behavior signals to employees that in reality the default attitude of the company towards their employees is not a positive one. Rather, it is negative as companies clearly fear that their employees will try to slack off from work. In other words, by being controlling, managers send the signal that they do not trust their employees working remotely.

Trust vs. Control

Although the two are often mistaken for each other, control is not the same as trust. Even more so, relying on control as a way to manage employees actually leaves little room to build trust. Why? In social sciences, the most commonly used definition of trust suggests that it is “a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another.” What can we learn from this definition for managers to be better equipped in building trust? First, if trust is present then it implies that the interacting parties have positive expectations about each other. One expects that the other party will act in ways that are honest, reliable and not damaging to one’s interests. Second, if such positive expectations are alive and well, then no reason exists to fear being vulnerable to the actions of the other party. Hence, no need should arise for using any control tactics.

What this means is that trust is present and alive when parties are okay with being vulnerable to each other’s actions and thus do not feel that monitoring each other is needed. When managers, however, do resort to actions that signal the need to control the actions of the other, then vulnerability is taken out of the equation and no trust will be experienced. In other words, theory and research are consistent in saying that without vulnerability trust cannot exist.

The controlling behavior that many managers have displayed during the COVID-19 crisis painstakingly makes clear that companies have problems in establishing and communicating trust to their employees. Trust has many benefits for organizations: These include promoting cooperation within and loyalty to the group employees belong to, sharing information, and increasing individual and in turn organizational performance. As these positive consequences are valuable for organizations to weather any crisis, COVID-19 can be considered a reminder for many business leaders that one of their main priorities should always be to build trust. Below, I outline why companies so often fail in taking the building of trust more seriously and how they can do things differently and reap the benefits of trust.

  1. Companies do not invest in building trust.

Although most leaders will agree with the idea that lack of trust is one of the biggest threats to business, most companies do not consider building trust as a strategy that warrants significant investments. An important reason for this lack of investment is that trust is considered something soft and hard to measure. As we know in business, what you cannot measure is often not granted much importance. And, if it is not considered important, it does not need to be managed. One result of such a mindset is that companies are reluctant to invest in training their managers to establish trustworthy work climates. Because it’s so difficult to measure, most bosses do not regard trust as a necessary skill as it clearly does not directly influence productivity and hence company performance. If trust were to have any direct effect, it would be much easier to measure and see trust in action. And, they are right.

At the same time, though, they are also wrong. Trust is important to the functioning of organizations because of its indirect effects. That is, when trust is in place people will act in certain ways and it is those behaviors that will eventually lead to outcomes that drive performance. For example, when a trustworthy work climate exists, information is communicated more openly, people are more willing to help one another and willing to test ideas even if these may ultimately fail. Such behavior, over time, leads to outcomes that make companies more creative, innovative, cooperative, and fast moving, which are all factors that drive performance in direct ways. 

  1. Building trust is not compliance but a full-time leadership job.

Research shows that establishing trusting work relationships indeed makes companies perform better over time and even outperform companies that do not have a strong trust culture. But once a company has decided to invest in building trust, what should they invest in? Most companies decide to invest in compliance. Compliance, however, is often confused with trust. The more compliance measures are in place, the more transparency we create and isn’t this what trust is about? Well, not exactly, because most compliance practices, due to their monitoring nature, are implemented to reduce risks. And with reducing risk, people cannot signal that they are willing to be vulnerable to each other. As a result, when risk is removed, so is trust.

Research shows that establishing trusting work relationships makes companies perform better over time and even outperform companies that do not have a strong trust culture.

The investment that should be made is in training managers to become better leaders in dealing with employees. It is in how an organization treats its employees that trust is built or destroyed. Research shows that when the top management gives trust to its managers, its managers will consider this the way to act and will treat their employees in similar trusting ways. As a result, the normative behavior in place will become giving trust to each other. The activity of building trust is therefore an important leadership responsibility and one that should be exercised continuously. If accepting vulnerability and thus giving trust to others is observed as the default behavior, then it will become the norm to follow and foster all the positive effects of trust.

What these insights teach us is that in today’s COVID-19 crisis, we need managers to deal differently with employees who are working remotely. If there is a time that your company needs all the positive effects of trust to be at work, it is now. In times of crisis, companies are put in survival mode, which is facilitated when people stick together, help out where possible and explore in creative ways how to create value for all stakeholders. So, instead of worrying what will happen if your employees do not work and consequently start monitoring more intensively, managers should change their default attitude. Instead, the default should be that you expect employees to be at work, because once they notice that you are willing to be vulnerable by trusting them — rather than deciding to check up on them every hour of the day — trust and all its benefits will be alive in your employees and the performance they will subsequently give you.

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