In the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer survey, only 37% of global respondents rated CEOs to be sufficiently credible, perpetuating the pattern of low trust in recent years. These results are worrying because within an organization, trust in organizational leaders is linked to employees’ intention to stay, compliance with strategic decisions, and unit performance.
As per Cheri Ostroff and Ashley Fulmer, corporate leaders can improve how credible they seem by focusing on relationships employees have with their frontline leaders. This can also improve the degree to which employees in the organization view them. In other words, trust trickles up.
The study tested whether employees who trusted their frontline leaders or managers subsequently trusted their senior organizational leaders (CEO). In general, employees have more day-to-day interactions with their frontline leaders and supervisors (L&S) than with senior organizational leaders, in turn knowing L&S better by observing how they deal with problems, implement strategy, and communicate with their teams.
Ostroff and Fulmer drew on the notion of trust transfer, which takes place when individuals use their trust in a more familiar entity to gauge their trust in a less familiar entity. They combined the trickle-up model with a theory called group value model, which states that fair treatment by leaders symbolically lets employees know that they are valued members of the organization.
The findings were that trust transferred up when frontline leaders exhibited behaviours that were perceived as being unbiased and fair: Employees who trusted their managers had more trust in senior organizational leaders.
Also, trust was more likely to trickle up for those employees who were lower on the cultural value of vertical collectivism. These employees tended to value their individual freedoms over obedience as well as authority and are concerned about fairness & rights, so frontline leaders’ procedural justice behaviours acted as a stronger trigger for their trust transfer.
As per trickle up model, even though trust in frontline leaders is important because it influences trust in top leadership, trust in top leadership contributes to the organization’s overall well-being by exerting a stronger impact on employee performance.
Trust in frontline leaders may only affect employee behaviours that are related to or observable by their managers; whereas, trust in senior organizational leaders can prompt employees to internalize organizational goals – which influence a wider range of employee behaviour, including those that are not directly related to their immediate bosses or managers.
The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge based management consulting firm in India, believes that managers serve a vital role in interpreting and enacting organizational policies and practices for employees. Managers represent an organization and influence how employees perceive senior leaders in the organization. A good place to start would be to strengthen trust-building skills of frontline leaders — including upholding professional integrity, genuinely caring for employees’ well-being & development, and by making sure they act fairly in making decisions of allocating rewards or resources.