Trust in the Workplace

Written by: Fargo Inc

Dr. Joshua Marineau is a fellow at the Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth and an associate professor of management at North Dakota State University. His research focuses on the antecedents and consequences of positive and negative interpersonal relationships in work settings or social networks. More recently, he has applied a social network perspective to the study of entrepreneurial ecosystems, and specifically the Fargo-Moorhead startup community. Recent projects focus on the interconnectedness and culture of the local startup community. He teaches organizational behavior and negotiation and alternative dispute resolution at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Knowing who trusts and distrusts at work can help our chances of promotion.

Research shows that being promoted at work is largely based on work performance, but it is also a notoriously political process. Factors such as one’s personal relationships, clout and popularity influence promotion chances. If being promoted is somewhat political and social, then knowing the relationships of the people around you, particularly what they think about you, is important. When it comes to relationships at work, personal trust is critical, and factors heavily into our chances for promotion.

Trust is broadly defined as a willingness to be vulnerable with another person. Trust, however, can be based on different underlying reasons. We tend to trust people we know and like, which is called affective trust. But sometimes trust is based on work ability alone. This is referred to as cognitive or instrumental trust and is based on the belief a person is competent and will follow through on their work. Both kinds of trust are important in the workplace but are used for different things. For example, I might trust my best friend to keep a personal secret, but I don’t necessarily trust him to perform open heart surgery.

It seems that on the surface, you will want to know who trusts you. You can use that knowledge to find good partners to work with, and it also might give a sense of value: a reputation for being trusted to do work and get it done pays benefits. It also gives us additional information when choosing people to work with, share ideas with and rely on to have our back. Understanding your position in the trust network could be a distinct advantage when it comes to the political game.

Not all instrumental trust is positive, however, there is also the possibility of distrust—belief that a person cannot perform a task and will not get it done. People we distrust are important to avoid or possibly even use to our own advantage— maybe by suggesting they work with a rival on a project rather than with us. Therefore, knowing who distrusts us might be critically important as well.

It is possible that knowing who distrusts us to do good work and follow through might cause some discomfort, anger and even self-doubt. On the other hand, knowing sources of distrust might provide a different kind of advantage—who to avoid, who not to rely on and how and when to combat or navigate social pitfalls or negative gossip. If knowledge is power, then even uncomfortable knowledge is beneficial.

Thus, does knowing your sources of trust and distrust at work aid you in playing the political game better, improving chances for promotion?

To answer these questions, I collected data from individuals at a mid-sized manufacturing business in the United States where I asked them a set of survey questions on various topics including who they trusted and who they believed trusted them at work. Their answers were used to determine if a person was more or less accurate about their sources of trust. I also gathered performance data from supervisors and promotion data nine months later for all the individuals in the study

Results were clear: The more accurate a person was about both their sources of instrumental trust and distrust at work the more likely there were to be promoted. This study also found that low performers benefit greatly from knowing their sources of trust and distrust, so much so that this knowledge compensated for their poor performance, dramatically increasing their chances for promotion to nearly the same level as high performers.

There is power in our social networks. Our number and type of relationships at work explain a large portion of our work performance. But there is also power in knowing how others think about you when it comes to work. We may not like it, but the workplace is often a political arena, and social knowledge is an important resource to have when navigating the political landscape. An accurate social map can show dangers and pitfalls to avoid, but also benefits to gain. Don’t shy away from being a student of your own social network in the workplace, it might make all the difference—especially for promotion.

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Brady Drake is the editor of Fargo INC!