In the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer survey, only 37 percent of global respondents said they trusted their CEOs, continuing the pattern of low trust in recent years. The results are worrisome because trust in leaders is linked to employee retention, compliance with strategy and unit performance.
Trust trickles up, however, as Cheri Ostroff and I found in our study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
We tested whether employees who trusted their front-line leaders also trusted their senior leaders. In general, employees have many more day-to-day interactions with their front-line managers and know them better, observing how they deal with problems, implement strategy and communicate with their teams.
We drew on the notion of trust transfer, which happens when individuals use their trust in a more familiar entity to gauge their trust in a less familiar one. Trust transfer has been documented to occur between individuals, brands and organizations.
We found that trust transferred up when front-line leaders acted fairly, such as when they made decisions in an unbiased manner or listened to their team members’ concerns.
An effective way to cultivate trust in senior leaders is by supporting trust in front-line leaders. And a good way to do that is by training front-line managers to ensure they maintain their professional integrity, genuinely caring for their employees’ well-being and development, and act fairly in making decisions and allocating resources.
Ashley Fulmer is a visiting assistant professor of management and organizations at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business.