Trust is commonly described as a leap of faith one takes in the face of incomplete information. More specifically, trust is a psychological state involving positive expectations about another’s actions despite vulnerability to the other’s actions. Studies have supported theoretical assertions that trust is not related to gullibility, but rather to the ability to take appropriate risks. Thus, trust within organizations is associated with a number of favorable organizational outcomes and is considered a desirable state.

Types of Trust

There are five primary levels of trust within organizations, which vary according to the party being trusted (i.e., the referent):

  • Organizational trust. Trust placed in the system that the organization represents
  • Trust in management (also trust in leadership or superiors). Trust placed in the collective people that are near the top of the hierarchy within an organization
  • Trust in supervisor (also trust in leader). Trust that focuses on a one-to-one interaction between an employee and his or her direct supervisor
  • Coworker trust (also trust in peers or teammates). Trust placed in an employee’s same-level peers, typically ones with whom she or he interacts regularly
  • Trust in subordinates. Trust placed in people the employee directly manages

Global factors are expected to influence trust in higher-level referents, whereas more specific factors are expected to influence trust in lower-level referents. For example, organizational-level constructs, such as perceptions of organizational justice, are more likely to be associated with trust in organizations, whereas more specific constructs, such as perceptions of supervisor integrity, are more likely to be associated with trust in supervisor.

Another broad categorization of types of trust is rational or relational trust. Overall, rational trust (also cognitive-based or conditional trust) is based on expectancy theory, which suggests that individuals weigh risks and outcomes to determine the appropriate level of trust. In contrast, relational trust (also affective-based or unconditional trust) is based more on social identity theory, which emphasizes the interpersonal component of trust: being in a trusting relationship is a pleasant affirmation of shared values.

Outcomes of Trust

Trust is expected to reduce the costs associated with transactions between the person doing the trusting and the party being trusted. Recent studies have demonstrated that trust within organizations is directly related to a number of outcomes, such as increased satisfaction, increased commitment, decreased intentions to quit, and improved performance. In keeping with the notion that trust is associated with appropriate risk-taking behavior, trust within organizations has been shown to be predictive of extra-role behaviors related to change, citizenship, and innovation. Finally, trust has been shown to facilitate certain relationships. For example, only when there is high trust in teammates does individual motivation lead to group performance. In low-trust situations, individual motivation is directed toward individual goals instead.

Formation and Evolution Of Trust

A handful of models exist describing the initial formation of trust, often with an aim of explaining employees’ tendencies toward high initial trust. What these models have in common is that trust arises based on a variety of individual, interpersonal, and situa-tional factors. In general, proximal factors based on experience with the party being trusted are weighted more strongly in the formation of trust, but in the absence of these experiences, more distal factors, such as word-of-mouth accounts of trustworthiness, are more likely to be influential.

At the individual level, personality has been shown to influence individuals’ level of trust within organizations and presumably operates independent of referent. Studies suggest that individuals’ predisposition to trust others serves as a source of trust within organizations. Individuals also draw on their previous interpersonal experiences to determine their level of trust. Past experiences with organizational change (e.g., restructuring, downsizing) may erode trust, whereas experiences with transformational leaders may build trust. In addition, trust may be determined in part by what others’ experiences have been, whether those experiences have been witnessed or just recounted.

At the situational level, another source of trust is the affiliation of the party being trusted. For example, just knowing the referent is a member of a particular trustworthy group provides some source of trust in that individual member of the group. Also at the system level is the expectation an individual has of the role of the party being trusted. For example, one could expect that a supervisor would help one maximize performance output, increasing trust that the supervisor would not deliberately sabotage performance efforts. Finally, organizational rules and policies also serve as a system-level source of trust. Some argue that rules and policies remove the vulnerability required for true trust to exist, but others maintain that individuals may choose to obey or break those rules. Assuming a certain level of individual freedom, organizational rules and policies against a certain harmful behavior would lead an employee to trust that parties within the organization would not engage in those types of behaviors.

Some theorists have advanced theories of the evolution of trust over time. In general, these models propose that trust is episodically reevaluated based on experienced outcomes of trusting behavior. Thus, favorable interaction with the party being trusted serves to deepen trust.

Distrust and the Dissolution of Trust

There remains some debate regarding the relationship of distrust (or mistrust) and trust. Some assert these constructs are at opposite ends of the same continuum, implying that one cannot simultaneously trust and mistrust a referent. However, a theory advanced by Roy Lewicki, Daniel McAllister, and Robert Bies suggests that trust and distrust are separate dimensions. In their classification, trust is characterized by hope, whereas distrust is characterized by fear. Thus, an individual could be hopeful about the outcome (high trust) but also fearful (high distrust), in which case the individual would engage in protective behaviors such as verification. This classification reflects the separation of the definition of trust into its two major components: positive expectations (trust) and feelings about vulnerability (distrust).

The dissolution of trust has been described from different theoretical perspectives, including symbolic interactionism, psychological contract theory, and stress/coping theory. Trust dissolution theories focus either on the robustness of the trust itself or on the betrayal of the party that was trusted. When trust itself is robust, dissolution of trust is more difficult. In fact, one of the positive outcomes of trust is that those who are trusting tend to give the party being trusted the benefit of the doubt when expectations are not met. However, that leniency is also dependent on the importance of the expectations, as well as the intent behind the betrayal.


  1. Kramer, R. M. (1999). Trust and distrust in organizations: Emerging perspectives, enduring questions. Annual Review of Psychology, 569-598.
  2. Kramer, R. M., & Tyler, T. R. (1996). Trust in organizations: Frontiers of theory and research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. Lewicki, R. J., McAllister, D. J., & Bies, R. J. (1998). Trust and distrust: New relationships and realities. Academy of Management Review, 23(3), 438-458.
  4. Mollering, G., Bachmann, R., & Lee, S. H. (2004). Understanding organizational trust—Foundations, constellations, and issues of operationalisation. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 19(6), 556-570.
  5. Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S., & Camerer, C. (1998). Not so different after all: A cross-discipline view of trust. Academy of Management Review, 23(3), 393-404.

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