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Gratifying though it may be, the boss’ trust is a burden as well as a benefit, study finds

December 5, 2015

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"His trust really scared the hell out of me. Right there and then I vowed to myself that I would never tell this man anything that I hadn't thought through. He made me grow up fast, and I tried to emulate this excellent teaching tool in my own career."


Thus did Dr. David Rogers, an eminence of American health care, recall an incident from his training years, when the chairman of medicine not only asked his opinion on an important matter but then marched the young resident down the hall to the medical board and fervently conveyed it to them – an episode that, for all that it unnerved him, Dr. Rogers recalled years later with fondness and gratitude. And overwhelmingly students of management concur: as a paper in the current Academy of Management Journal points out, scores of management studies present "a clear consensus that a beneficial component of work relationships.....a key to employee empowerment and engagement and a foundational element of high-involvement workplaces." 


The paper then proceeds to challenge this consensus, describing it as "incomplete and potentially problematic." Gratifying though feeling trusted by the boss may be, it is "both benefit and burden to employees."


Based on surveys of 219 city bus drivers, the new Academyof Management Journal study concludes that being trusted by supervisors is "a double-edged sword...On the one hand, [it] can trigger employee pride. On the other hand, feeling trusted by a supervisor can increase perceived workload while signaling a reputation that requires effort to maintain." For all its touted benefits, the paper continues, "feeling trusted is also a stressful experience [that should call forth] recommendations for addressing its negative side effects."


Two downsides of trust are identified by the study along with one considerable positive effect that is cancelled out by the two negative ones. Although supervisor trust tended to be a source of pride for the bus drivers, this benefit was countered by the fact that it increased their sense of being overworked and saddled them with the burden of upholding their good reputation.


Comments Michael D. Baer, of Arizona State University, a co-author of the paper, "For bus drivers having to spend their days battling London traffic (a 'bloody nightmare,' one driver called it), one would think that enjoying a high level of trust from your supervisor would ease the inherent stresses of the job. But we found no direct association between feeling trusted by the boss and any relief from emotional exhaustion or resultant improvement in job performance. The pros and cons of feeling trusted appear to cancel each other out."


Prof. Baer collaborated on the study with Rashpal K. Dhensa-Kahlon of Aston University, who carried out the surveys of the bus drivers. Also contributing to the research were Jason A. Colquitt and Jessica B. Rodell of the University of Georgia, Ryan Outlaw of Indiana University, and David M. Long of William & Mary.


The authors see definite lessons for management in their findings. In the words of the study, managers should not "look at trusted employees as indefatigable 'rocks' who can take on ever more responsibility. Simply realizing that emotional exhaustion can be an issue – even for the most trusted – can open up steps for addressing it. One step would be to accentuate the positives of feeling trusted...with managers pausing to acknowledge their trust, along with the actions that earned it...Another step would be to limit the negatives associated with being trusted [so that] chores that could be allocated elsewhere (or eliminated altogether) could be subtracted...result[ing] in a different work mix without resulting in a higher workload. With respect to reputation...reassuring trusted employees that their hard-earned reputation is not at risk with every stretching assignment could ease an unnecessary burden."


In sum, Prof. Baer adds, "Nice though the music of trust may be, workers need words to go with the music."


The authors also observe that "the relationships between feeling trusted and emotional exhaustion may depend on how much control employees have over their jobs. Lower-echelon employees, like bus drivers, generally have lower levels of control over how the work gets done. For these employees, the resource losses and gains associated with feeling trusted may be amplified. In higher-level, higher-control jobs, employees may have access to more organizational resources, enabling them to more easily cope with additional demands."


The study's findings emerge from a series of surveys administered to 219 bus drivers and their 20 supervisors who worked out of four separate depots of a large transportation company in London, England. Although the drivers (94% male, average age 46) spent most of their time on their buses, they interacted with their supervisors (65% male, average age 46) at the beginning and end of their shifts and at depot canteens during their breaks and were also in regular radio contact with them during the day. As the study notes, the drivers' supervisor contact time "wound up resembling the time in many white-collar jobs."


Data were collected in three waves from surveys distributed at depots, each paper marked with a unique code that enabled researchers but not anyone else to identify respondents. The first survey probed drivers' sense of being trusted by their supervisors by having them respond, on a scale of 1/strongly agree to 5/strongly disagree, to such statements as "lets me have significant influence over how I do my job"; "is comfortable relying on me for something that is critical to him/her, even if he/she can't monitor my actions"; "informs me about mistakes he/she has made on the job, even if they could damage his/her reputation"; and "lets me have an impact on issues that are important to him/her."


Six weeks later, a follow-up survey probed on a 1-to-5 scale 1) drivers' sense of pride (e.g., to what extent they felt "accomplished," "confident," "productive"; 2)  drivers' perceived workload (e.g., "my job requires me to work very hard," "it often seems I have too much work for one person to do"; 3) drivers' reputation-maintenance concerns (e.g., "I feel the need to preserve the opinion others have of me," "I worry about protecting my reputation") and 4) drivers' emotional exhaustion (e.g., "I feel emotionally drained from my work," "I feel fatigued when I get up in the morning and have to face another day on the job," and "I feel like I'm at the end of my rope."


Finally, at time 3, surveys were distributed to the supervisors of the 219 follow-up respondents to rate them (again, on a scale of 1/strongly agree to 5/strongly disagree) on their job performance (e.g., "is outstanding at his/her job," "is very good at daily job activities").


The researchers found that, if they restricted their analysis to the effect that feeling trusted had on pride, which it tended to foster, the measure of emotional exhaustion went down and that of job performance went up. But when the effects of trust on perceived workload and reputational concerns were added to the mix, the morale gain from increased pride and its salutary effect on job performance disappeared.


Thus the ambivalence of the comments that employees made off-the-cuff to Dr. Dhensa-Kahlon of the research team when asked how it felt to be trusted.  As one driver put it, “I feel tired at the end of a busy week from doing my work— and then some more on top of it. I enjoy it, though, so I’m not complaining, but sometimes I do wish that management would ask others to step in. I know why they don’t, but there’s only one of me!” Or the comment of another driver who in the previous week, had been asked to extend his shifts to fill in for late drivers and mentor new ones: “These days every and any job can make you feel used up at the end of the day, can’t it? This week I’m more tired because I’ve had to do more than my share. I don’t mind it, don’t get me wrong, but we’re only human. I guess this is part and parcel of work these days, isn’t it?”


The paper, “Uneasy Lies the Head that Bears the Trust: The Effects of Feeling Trusted on Emotional Exhaustion," is in the December/January issue of the Academy ofManagement Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with 18,000 members in 116 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Academy of Management Annals, and Academy of Management Discoveries.  

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