Improving Trust for Leaders

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Dr. Stewart L. Tubbs is a contributor to The Business Thinker magazine. He is the Darrell H. Cooper Professor of Leadership and Former Dean of the College of Business at Eastern Michigan University.

On April 10, 2010 Poland’s president Lech Kaczynski and 96 other top Polish officials were killed in a plane crash in Smolensk in western Russia. They were coming to commemorate the massacre of Polish military officers by the Russians in World War II. The massacre had been denied for decades byofficials in the former Soviet Union. The crash occurred in the thick fog, and despite strong warnings from the air traffic controllers not to land. Cockpit recordings confirmed that Gen. Andrzej Blasik, was in the cockpit with the door open. Although we may never know, there was speculation according to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times,* that the Polish president ordered the pilot to land because he did not trust the Russians who had told the pilot to divert the landing to another airport.

In another case closer to home, the UAW elected Bob King as president to replace Ron Gettelfinger in June, 2010. According to the Detroit Free Press, one of the key issues facing King is to reduce 2,000 page labor agreements, which limit flexibility and retard productivity by spelling out every possible issue in great detail, and replacing them with briefer, more broad-based agreements. Tom Walsh, writes, “Trust and shared goals must replace adversarial relations. No other viable options remain.”

The common denominator in these two cases is that the lack of trust often leads to undesirable consequences. So what do we mean by trust? One definition from The Academy of Management Journal is, “A psychological state of individuals involving confident, positive expectations about the actions of another.”*

More than forty years ago, I conducted an experimental study for my doctoral dissertation in which subjects observed either cooperative or competitive behaviors of an individual in a “prisoner’s dilemma game” type of situation. Then they wrote down the degree to which (on a five-point scale) they would trust or not trust that individual. We conducted the experiment sixty times to verify the findings. So, what do you think we found?

We found that cooperative behaviors tended to induce cooperative (trusting) responses, and competitive behaviors tended to induce competitive (distrusting) responses.

However, there was one complicating factor, and that was the majority opinion of three other observers in the experiment. When observers heard the other three people say that they thought the individual was behaving the opposite of the way she had actually behaved, then the trust was lost. In other words, she had actually acted in a cooperative trusting way, but the others in the group (who were part of the experiment) said that she had acted in a competitive distrusting way. So, even consistently trust-inducing behaviors can be ineffective if a majority of others tell someone that our perceptions were wrong.* No wonder trust is such a fragile phenomenon.

That study had all the limitations of any experimental study conducted in a laboratory setting. However, deJong and Elfring recently published the results of a study of 879 tax consultants working in 92 actual work teams.  Their study confirmed the main findings of my study in that cooperation leads to trust and cooperation, and that competition and distrust breeds more distrust and poor team performance. Moreover, they studied teams over time and found that the longer the teams worked together, the more pronounced the findings were. These types of studies are supported by three articles in the June, 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review, which is devoted entirely to this topic.

On a related note, one of the most frequently asked questions is the age-old one of how do you motivate employees? This also relates to trust. As it turns out, trusting employees in four ways can lead to better performance. Research by Daniel Pink offers four practical tips for leaders.   They relate to how leaders structure, Task, Time, Technique and Team.

Task. It turns out that giving employees the autonomy to innovate in their jobs, leads to greater quality and quantity of work. For example, many nurses at Georgetown Hospital in Washington, D.C. have the freedom to conduct their own research projects. This practice has led to a number of improved programs and policies.   The most famous example of this phenomenon, is the Post-It note, which was invented by Art Fry, a 3M employee, who was just experimenting with adhesives. 3M has long allowed their technical staff to dedicate 15% of their time to projects of their own choosing.

Let me hasten to add that the appropriate level of training and employee readiness must first occur. George Elges, the former General Manager of Buick Motor Division of General Motors told me that as a new General manager, he tried out the idea of trusting employees to work without time clocks. Without the proper training and orientation, this led to absenteeism on one Friday afternoon shift of about 66%! Needless to say, trusting employees without laying the proper groundwork, would be foolish.

Time. Closely related to task, is how leaders allow employees to be accountable for their time. Some law firms are moving away from the long held practice of “billable hours,” in favor of a flat-rate fee based on outcomes, rather than time. Best Buy’s headquarters in Richfield, Minnesota allows, “Salaried people to put in as much time as it takes to do their work. Hourly employees in the program work a set number of hours to comply with federal labor regulations, but they get to choose when…Productivity has increased by 35%, and voluntary turnover is 320 basis points lower than in teams that have not made the change.” (p. 101).

Technique. Customer call centers usually require employees to follow a set script in responding to customers. However, Zappos, the online shoe retailer (now part of, handle calls the way they want. In addition to answering calls with their own choice of conversation, JetBlue even allows their call center employees to work from their home. They call it “Homeshoring” (as opposed to offshoring the jobs to India). Other companies moving in this same direction are, J. Crew, Office Depot, 1-800-Flowers, and even the Internal Revenue Service.

Team. Hiring decisions are often made by leaders in cooperation with Human Resources employees. However, some organizations are actively involving teams of future colleagues in the hiring decisions. Universities have been doing this for decades. Research has shown that teams that organize themselves achieve superior results to “inherited” teams.

As mentioned above, there are certainly limits to implementing these four T’s. However, with the appropriate amount of training and beta site testing, they do communicate to employees a degree of trust that is outside the conventional norm.

Finally, we may not be able to solve issues as big as the trust between Poland and Russia, or between the UAW and the auto companies. However, my research and that of other researchers forty years apart, demonstrate that building trust is key to achieving desirable results.


Barry, Ellen with Nicholas Kulish and Michal Piotrowski, “Polish President Dies in Jet Crash in Russia,” The New York Times e-version, April 10, 2010.

deJong, Bart and Tom Elfring, “How does trust affect the performance of ongoing teams?” The Academy of Management Journal, June 2010, 535-549.

Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.

Sobczyk, Marcin, “Polish crash probe focuses on general,” The Wall Street Journal, May 27, 2010, A10.

Tubbs, Stewart L. ““Two Person Game Behavior, Conformity-Inducing Messages, and Interpersonal Trust,” Journal of Communication, December 1971, 326-341.

Walsh, Tom, “Detroit 3 chiefs, UAW can try trust,” Detroit Free Press, June 13, 2010, A1.


About the Author

Dr. Stewart L. Tubbs is the Darrell H. Cooper Professor of Leadership and Former Dean of the College of Business at Eastern Michigan University.

He is also a visiting Professor of Leadership in the Executive MBA Program at Koc University in Istanbul, Turkey.

Dr. Tubbs has consulted for over one hundred corporations and has won eight awards for his outstanding teaching.

In 1994 he received the Outstanding Leadership Award in London, England from the Academy of Business Administration. He is also a member of the Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame at Lakewood High School in Lakewood, Ohio.

He received his doctorate from the University of Kansas. His Masters and Bachelors degrees are from Bowling Green State University. He has completed postdoctoral study at Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business and The Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina.

He served as Associate Dean of the College of Business at Boise State University. He also served as Chair of the Management Department at Boise State University. Prior to that, he was the Harold P. Rodes Professor of Organizational Behavior at General Motors Institute(now Kettering University). Prior to that he also served as Assistant Director of Community Leadership Development for the University of Kansas.

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