Psychology

What's the level of trust in your workplace?

May 12, 2000
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No way," workers sometimes tell me when I introduce the observation and feedback process. They don’t like the idea of a coworker watching them and tallying safe and at-risk behaviors for a feedback session. Managers and safety directors sometimes will agree with the basics of the process, but then say, "Our plant is not ready for such a process."

Why the resistance?

It all comes down to one word - trust. A behavior-based observation and feedback process won’t succeed without a high degree of trust. First you must believe that the process is valid, a good tool for improving safety. Then you need confidence in your coworkers, that they will know how to observe and give feedback correctly. Beyond ability, you must trust that the person observing and recording your behaviors doesn’t have a hidden agenda. This is called trusting the intentions of an observer, and it’s critical. So, too, is trusting the intentions of your company’s managers who are responsible for bringing the process into your workplace.

How do you know if your organization is ready to trust the behavior-based process? If coworkers will trust each other as coaches? And if enough confidence exists between management and the workforce? I hope this article gives you a better understanding of the feelings that go into trust. You’ll also come away with a tool for measuring trust in your organization.

Defining trust

"Confidence in the integrity, ability, character, and truth of a person or thing" is the first definition of "trust" given in the 1991 The American Heritage Dictionary. This definition refers to behavior (as in "ability") as well as internal or person-based dimensions (as in "integrity" and "character"). These are the characteristics that my colleagues and I measure to assess trust between people in a work culture, using a survey based on research by John Cook and Toby Wall, as reported in the Journal of Occupational Psychology (1980, 53, 39-52). The survey distinguishes between intentions and ability. In other words, you can be confident that a person means well, but you might doubt his or her ability to complete the intended task. In this case, you trust the individual’s intentions but you’re not so sure that things will work out as planned. You lack confidence in the person’s ability to make good on his or her promise.

This is a common perception of workplace safety efforts. Well-intentioned managers or safety leaders can talk about missions, goals, or policies that employees view as idealistic or unrealistic. And when punishments or rewards are not carried out consistently and fairly, employees don’t trust the abilities of those running the program. The reverse also happens. Employees might have faith in the ability of others, but mistrust their intentions. When a policy change is sprung on workers without warning or rationale, they might suspect management’s intentions. They might believe managers have the intellect and skills to make things happen, but will they do the right thing? "Do they really have our welfare in mind?" suspicious minds ask.

For instance, what if management sets up a safety incentive program that offers everyone a prize if no one gets hurt for six months? Employees feel pressure not to report an injury. If they do, everyone loses their reward. So what’s management’s true agenda? Is it to keep the numbers down, or to keep employees from being hurt?

The same issues of trust play out every day between coworkers. You might have confidence in a coworker’s ability to perform a job safely and competently, but you might not want to confide in that person. "My partner might use the information against me to get the promotion before me," could be your thought. Similarly, you might trust the intentions of a coworker ("He would never take advantage of me") but lack confidence in his ability ("I’m sure he’ll try his best, but he just doesn’t have enough experience").

Measuring trust

As you can see, there are four dimensions to trust: faith in the intentions and in the ability of either coworkers or managers. These four dimensions were used by Cook and Wall in 1980 to develop a questionnaire asking for responses to 12 statements in order to assess "interpersonal trust at work."

The instructions for this survey tool and the actual items are listed to the left. The researchers originally gave this survey to employees by reading them each item and asking them to indicate on a seven-point scale their degree of agreement with a particular statement. My colleagues and I include these 12 statements on a questionnaire along with many others to draw conclusions about a work culture. We ask respondents to give their opinions on a five-point scale.

Except for statements #2 and #12, the higher scale value equates with greater interpersonal trust. Statements #2 and #12 are negatively phrased, and need to be reverse scored. By totaling the scores for all 12 statements (with #2 and #12 reverse scored) you have an estimate of an individual’s perception of interpersonal trust in his or her work culture. You can obtain an overall trust index by calculating the mean survey score from many respondents.

There is nothing special or magical about the wording of these statements. Feel free to re-word statements if different language fits better with your culture. And you can add or substitute new statements. One more point: This scale was developed to measure interpersonal trust from the viewpoint of an hourly worker. With only slight adjustments, the scale can also estimate interpersonal trust from a manager’s perspective.

Once you arrive at an estimate of the level of trust in your workplace, the question becomes: How can we increase it? After all, safety improvement depends on a sense of interdependence among coworkers and managers. Everyone must look out for the safety of everyone else. This means trusting each others’ intentions and abilities to do the right thing.

Stay tuned, because increasing trust is the theme of my article next month.

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