Leaders use shortcut to assess who trusts them

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As a leader, do you know if your employees trust you? Is your sense of their trust accurate? If you’re wrong, will that affect your success?

Most business leaders hope their employees trust them, and that hope is warranted based on research showing trust is critical for effective leadership.

But a critical unexplored question was whether leaders feel their employees trust them — and whether the trust they feel is accurate.

A new study that included a pair of researchers from Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School, Kurt Dirks and Andrew Knight, explored what underlies an accurate sense of trust. They conducted studies at two different types of organizations: one a state corrections department, the other a nonprofit caregiving organization.


“Our data suggests that leaders are at best moderately accurate,” said Dirks, the Bank of America Professor of Leadership. “Also, importantly, our data suggests that leaders who are less accurate tend to experience more challenges, including more conflict.”

The paper “On the Relation between Felt Trust and Actual Trust: Examining Pathways to and Implications of Leader Trust Meta-Accuracy” is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

What causes leaders to be accurate? Popular wisdom suggested they would be correct—or not—based on reading employees’ verbal and nonverbal cues.

“The results of the two studies, however, indicated that the data did not support the popular wisdom,” said Dirks, who also serves Washington University as vice chancellor of international affairs.

‘Our data suggest that leaders are at best moderately accurate. Also, importantly, our data suggests that leaders who are less accurate tend to experience more challenges, including more conflict.’

-Kurt Dirks

Instead, consistent with a line of research from psychology, the authors found that leaders’ accuracy about employees’ trust is shaped internally and by a presumed “reciprocity” of trust.

They discovered that people followed a shortcut in terms of who they believed trusted them.

“The shortcut was, ‘Do I trust you?’” Dirks said. “In other words, individuals tend to assume that if I trust you, you must trust me.”

The fact that this is somewhat true is what drove a leader’s actual accuracy.

Trust in the workplace is associated with a range of important outcomes, including teamwork and leadership effectiveness, Knight said. It can motivate people to perform at high levels.

“Perceptions are important for governing our behavior and shaping how we interact with others,” said Knight, professor of organizational behavior.

In the study, Dirks and Knight tested hypotheses based on two mechanisms that theory suggests shape leaders’ trust “meta-accuracy,” or the degree to which a person knows how others see them.


“Our research contributes to burgeoning interest in felt trust by elucidating the mechanisms underlying trust meta-accuracy and suggesting practical directions for leaders who seek to accurately understand how much their employees trust them,” the authors wrote.

Other authors of the paper are Rachel L. Campagna of the University of New Hampshire, Craig Crossley of the University of Central Florida, and Sandra L. Robinson of the University of British Columbia.

“One question that we don’t get into in this paper that’s a really interesting one is, ‘Why is it that some people are more accurate than others?’” Knight said.

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