Q&A: Kurt Dirks

The key to good leadership? Trust.

Kurt Dirks, PhD, senior associate dean of programs and Bank of America Professor of Managerial Leadership at Olin Business School, chats in his office with second-year MBA student Charlie Felker.Dirks, who joined the faculty in 2001, studies organizational behavior, trust in workplace relationships, leadership and teams.”We do a great job at Olin in training our students in the functional areas of finance, marketing, strategy and accounting,” Dirks says. “We also, however, wanted to help students think about how to use those skills to have an impact as a leader, and how to bring their own values and character to life in their work.” (Credit: Whitney Curtis)

Where did your interest in trust in the workplace originate?

I’ve been studying trust in the workplace since 1995. At that time, there was very little work on the topic within academic circles.

Trust is a topic that is both timeless and timely. Issues of trust and character have been cited over the centuries as critical attributes for leaders.

It’s particularly timely given that trust in leaders of almost all sectors — ranging from business to government to education — are at record lows.

What are some things that people can do to improve trust in their own workplace environments?

What researchers in my field have determined is that there are three attributes that people look for when they determine whether they trust someone, at least in a workplace context: competence, character and caring.

Often, people have a good grasp on two of those attributes, but not the third. Concentrating on ensuring that you consistently display all three areas is a one way to convey trustworthiness at work.

What are some of the negative effects of a lack of trust in the workplace?

That’s an important question. We see a number of things that happen when trust is absent. One is that for organizations or teams to be successful, people must partially set aside personal goals to work together toward some common goal. When trust is absent, people focus on their personal goals or on protecting their own interests and, as a result, the organization splinters.

The second, as anyone who has ever worked in a situation where trust is absent knows, is that the situation can be very stressful. This has both a personal cost and cost for the group.

We see these effects across a range of contexts from health care to financial services to sports. As an example, one of the studies I did as part of my dissertation was on NCAA basketball teams, studying how much teams trusted their coach and how that might impact team success. We found, accounting for a large range of alternative predictors, trust in the leader (the coach), had a substantial impact on team winning percentage; the impact was of the same magnitude as the talent of its players.

Are good leaders born or can they be made?

That’s a classic question for the field. The answer is that it’s both. Research indicates that some people are born with the attributes that give them natural advantages at being a leader across situations. At the same time, there is no doubt that individuals can develop into more effective leaders.

At Olin, we tackle the issue of leadership in a few ways. We help people develop those key skills that are required for good leadership. In addition, we also help students and executives recognize their natural strengths and how they can adapt those strengths to be successful in situations they face in their careers.

You co-teach the popular Defining Moments course with Stuart Bunderson (PhD, the George and Carol Bauer Professor of Organizational Ethics and Governance at Olin). What is this course and what are students getting out of it?

We do a great job at Olin in training our students in the functional areas of finance, marketing, strategy and accounting. We also, however, wanted to help students think about how to use those skills to have an impact as a leader, and how to bring their own values and character to life in their work.

Stuart and I believe one of the most effective ways to achieve this goal is for students to hear directly from notable leaders about their own leadership journey, the role that personal values and character have played in their career and the extent to which it’s possible to be successful and maintain your own values.

This is the second year of the course. We’ve had leaders from a variety of different types of organizations helping our students think about how to chart their own careers while not sacrificing their individual value systems. Students have told us that this is a very helpful set of issues for them to consider as they leave Washington University to launch or re-launch their careers.

You have received a number of teaching awards in your time at Olin. What do you like best about teaching?

Most faculty, including me, love teaching for the ability to positively impact a student’s life. For example, it’s very rewarding when I hear from former students about how a class impacted their thinking and contributed to their success, broadly speaking.

Olin is known for its high quality teaching by faculty and the dedication of our staff to students. It’s a great time to be at Olin — all of our programs are doing very well because of the commitment of our faculty and staff.

What research projects are you working on right now?

Much of my current work continues on the topic of trust. One area that my colleagues and I are focused on is the repair of trust. In other words, when trust is broken, is it possible to repair it? What are the dynamics involved?

It’s been a fascinating topic for us and an area of great interest. Another issue that my colleagues and I are looking at is whether it is possible to accelerate trust more quickly in a relationship. For example, we’ve studied this in the United States Military Academy where cadets are training to be officers in the U.S. Army.

The idea was that the more quickly cadets can learn to build trust, the more quickly their units can be effective.