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Trust in the Workplace

Updated Wednesday, 31 March 2021
In the Trust and Work theme in our Applying Psychology to Work hub we have many rescources to help you explore managing trust.

The theme of trust at work presents one of the five main priorities in the Applying Psychology to Work hub. Our research highlighted that many organisations were contemplating actions that would potentially impact their employees’ wellbeing, job security and uncertainty about the future. Also, freezes on recruitment in some industries have created a disconnection between job seekers expectations for employment and employment availability. The increased precarity of employment, uncertainty about the future and unmet expectations bring trust into a sharp focus. Trust is needed, especially in times when uncertainty and risk intersect, and is a key component of the psychological contract. Our data highlight that 25-30% of businesses had less than good ability to address trust issues stemming from COVID-19 impacts in their organisation. We consider this number to be even higher due to trust being often misunderstood, and survey respondents’ tendency to overrate their businesses performance. Given the impact on entire sectors of industry and rounds of layoffs, trust is an issue organisations and the employment sector cannot ignore.

Trust at work has been the subject of much research, especially over the last 30 years. Trust is becoming increasingly important, and there are many reasons for this. The workplace is where adults spend most of their adult lives and form working relationships and create enduring friendships. Many work processes involve trust, from negotiation to sales, management and coaching, job interviews and teamwork. A lack of trust can create significant problems for organisations in employee relations, attracting talent, forming alliances and partnerships and consumer trust. At an individual level, breaches of trust can lead to litigation (for example, data protection) and moral injury of people whose trust has been broken.

Trust in a changing world

Organisational and technological change’s pace and scale mean a trend of changing relationships at work. This trend points to a future of increasingly automated, disaggregated forms of working (e.g., working as part of temporary teams that are geographically separate). In addition, the projected skills gaps mean that there will be an increasing need for employees to retrain throughout their life histories. Those who anticipate the change and take proactive steps to reskill (particularly in digital, AI and soft skills) will be better equipped to resist redundancies and underemployment. Conversely, those who are struggling to re-enter the job market may feel abandoned and less likely to trust established institutions. There are many indications that people experience work, and their economic security impacts their social and political attitudes and behaviours. A lack of trust predictably can lead to tribalism, conflict, and lack of cooperation with the social good.

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020/2021 has in this sense provided a glimpse of a future in which relationships are rapidly changing, in which taken for granted notions of working practices are overturned and relationships put under significant strain because of a lack of face-to-face communication. Behaviourally, the loss of ‘water-cooler’ moments and other informal channels makes it harder to deepen relationships, creating a less consistent basis for trust. Longer-term impacts of a loss of trust have real-world implications that extend beyond individual businesses and feed into society's social coherence, stability and wellbeing.

The idea of living in a volatile uncertain complex and often ambiguous context (VUCA) is mentioned in the Signposts for Work lead article. Just as much as the challenge of disruption requires new skillsets and new ways of thinking it also requires the ability to understand and manage trust and recover and repair trust it has been breached.

Content on trust in the hub

When we began this work, there were few assets on OpenLearn about trust in the workplace, mostly assets that briefly mention it. However, what we do not have in the volume of individual assets we have in the scope of the available materials. At the time of launch of the Applying Psychology to Work hub, we have one flagship course on trust. This provides an overview of trust in the workplace and serves as a gentle introduction to this topic: Developing high trust work relationships. In development following our plan to launch this hub is a further course complementing the first. This will focus on Trust breaches and addresses the idea of trust as something that can be breached, the impact of trust breaches on people and organisations, as well as some material on how to recover and rebuild trust. Because of the nature of breaches, there are links with other themes, notably Wellbeing for Work and Change and Work. Trust is highly relevant to psychological flexibility, diversity, managing relationships and working in teams as well as to maintaining relationships with customers. You will find material related to this in the hub under the Trust and Work heading or in some of the other themes.

Our plans for the Trust and Work theme are to develop additional content over time to add to this important topic and provide insight for business to use in developing their employees and actively managing trust to improve organisational and employee performance on one hand and wellbeing the other.


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