Too much of a good thing

When trust gets in the way of productivity

There’s no denying that trust is essential in a healthy work place. It’s expected that you trust your co-workers and your boss. And you hope that your boss and peers trust you. Common wisdom is that trust brings numerous benefits: it improves communication, raises group performance, reduces conflict, and provides greater job satisfaction.

Good team work means not trusting each other too much.
Good team work means not trusting each other too much.

And yet, there is such a thing as too much trust.

A recent study by a professor at the Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis found that too much trust could actually be bad for business…when it comes to working on team projects.

After two years studying teams working on various projects, Claus Langfred, associate professor of organizational behavior, found a correlation between the level of productivity and the level of trust between group members. Langfred says when individuals within the group have a lot of autonomy, then the least productive teams turned out to be those whose members trusted each other the most.

“That trust under certain circumstances is a bad thing sounds strange. But the explanation makes perfect sense,” Langfred says.

Businesses often group people together for either long- or short-term projects. While each team might develop a different work style, frequently group members contribute to the project through individual effort. The expectation is that the group will coordinate the work and that the group will self-monitor to make sure everything is on the right track.

“In these self-managing teams, people can make the mistaken assumption that trust can be a substitute for monitoring,” Langfred says. “They think, ‘We really trust each other a lot, we don’t need to monitor each other.’ And that’s when it gets dangerous. The reality is, you need a minimum level of monitoring to ensure productivity.”

Claus Langfred
Claus Langfred

Langfred studied 71 teams of MBA students at the Olin School of Business who worked together over the course of four months. Every year as school starts, first year MBA students are organized into strategically designed teams. Langfred says this is a nearly an ideal setting to study teams since group members are forced to work together in stable teams on a variety of class assignments across all of their required classes. At the end of the four months, the school holds a business competition for which winning teams receive various awards as well as bragging rights. The teams are evaluated on the project by giving a presentation made to a panel of faculty, industry experts and business leaders from the St. Louis area. Langfred had the students fill out questionnaires at the end of the four months to measure how the students felt about each other.

The implications of Langfred’s findings confirm what most businesses probably already know: creating productive teams is tricky.

“There are a lot of ways things can go wrong when you create teams, especially self-managing ones,” Langfred says. “You need to be very deliberate and careful about how you design them or you risk losing productivity. Now we know that in addition to a lot of other factors, it’s important to remember all teams need at least some level of monitoring. It’s nice when team members like each other and get along well; but when it comes to trust, there is a such a thing as too much of a good thing.”