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The Balance of Trust vs. Control

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During the last few decades, research has proven the importance of trust in work environments and its effect on employee satisfaction and turnover rates. While studies have shown how trust impacts employees, little is known about what leads managers to build trust with subordinates.

In the recent study, "Controlling Routes to Trust: How Managers Efforts to Demonstrate their Trustworthiness Moderate the Relationship between Managerial Controls and Subordinate Trust," Georgetown McDonough Assistant Professor Professor Chris Long and his co-author examine the experience of trustees (i.e. managers, employers, leaders, etc.) and the actions they take to gain the trust of subordinates.

“Because organizations tend to rely on particular controls to direct their employees, over time, organizations tend to focus on building only certain forms of trust,” said Long. “However, if leaders develop their capacity to cultivate multiple forms of trust, they will foster much more effective personal relationships with their employees.”

Through a series of surveys and research, Long found managers strive to balance earning trust while maintaining control and credibility. While certain activities may build trust, other actions have the power to detract from positive relationships. By examining the three forms of trust: integrity (fulfilling promises), competence (illustrating capability) and benevolence (considering employee interests), managers can promote superior-subordinate cooperation by aligning these forms with the most appropriate controls.

From sales teams to military branches, the following systematic relationships can lead to cooperative relationships:

Output Control and Integrity
Output control scenarios provide compensation incentives for employees to achieve certain benchmarks and quotas. Examples of output control relationships include sales teams and financial firms, who earn financial rewards for certain work accomplishments. The most effective form of trust with output control jobs is integrity, emphasizing the belief that employees will be paid on time and in a fair manner due to established incentive structures and agreements. Financial firms should consider this combination when experiencing high turnover rates, as employees may feel fairly compensated, but may not feel included in decision-making processes.

Process Control and Competence
Process control scenarios offer specific rules and guidelines for employees to follow. Most professions follow process control scenarios, with employers informing subordinates how to complete the desired tasks. The most effective form of trust in process control jobs is competence, where managers focus on convincing employees they are capable and experienced enough to complete the job. This combination is important for most employers, suggesting individuals who are willing to share their knowledge and expertise should be hired for managerial positions.

Input Control and Benevolence
Input control scenarios train employees with the skills required to improve their overall work performance. Human Resource Departments are one of the most recognized examples of input control scenarios, preparing employees with skills and addressing personal needs and concerns. The most effective form of trust in input control scenarios is benevolence, focusing on fielding employees’ interests to create a more positive experience. This combination encourages managers to take care of subordinates by providing direction and resources to address personal needs and concerns.

Despite industry, size or structure, Long finds that the right combination of control and trust can improve workplace productivity by reducing the time superiors need to manage subordinates. By engaging in certain actions and activities, managers can increase employee cooperation, minimize turnover and improve satisfaction for all involved.