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Employment relations and employee engagement
Employment relations and employee engagement

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3.3 Trust as a key aspect of climate

It is important, as with other discussions in the course related to voice, involvement and participation, that the individual employee is not regarded as passive, simply to be ‘made’ engaged.

It is suggested that trust has a critical role to play here: ‘put simply, without trust engagement cannot exist’ (Macey et al., 2009, p. 46). Cummings and Bromiley (1996) define trust in the following way:

Trust (is) defined as an individual’s belief or a common belief among a group of individuals that another individual or group a) makes good-faith efforts to behave in accordance with any commitments both explicit or implicit, b) is honest in whatever negotiations preceded such commitments, and c) does not take excessive advantage of another even when the opportunity is available. The rationale for this definition of trust rests on the socially embedded, subjective, and optimistic nature of most interactions within and between organisations that involve trust. Much of organisational interaction rests strongly on these three characteristics and thus makes trust so centrally important.

(Cummings and Bromiley, 1996, pp. 303–5)

Trust can therefore be understood as a ‘belief that another party will be fair, reliable and competent, and in consequence, the trustor becomes vulnerable to the trustee’ (Alfes et al., 2012, p. 409). Both individual and group trust matter in organisations and are embedded within understandings of climate and culture. Organisational culture impacts the extent to which employees trust the organisation while climate impacts trust at group and team level.

Underpinning the value of trust is the importance of effective cooperation in organisational life. In the simplest of terms, trust is key because it enables cooperation (Tyler, 2003). While cooperation has always been important in organisations, emerging trends in organisational dynamics have pushed this to the foreground. Changes in the nature of work have made ‘old’ styles of securing cooperation more difficult to maintain. Additionally, the nature of cooperation has changed; there is now a greater emphasis on more ‘voluntary forms of cooperation’ which can be more difficult to achieve (Tyler, 2003, p. 557). Old style ‘command and control’ strategies for securing motivation are no longer considered sufficient against the backdrop of organisational changes.

Processes of globalisation, flexibilisation of labour relations, continuous change and the virtualisation of organisational forms, mean that the relations between people have become looser and behaviours are less easy to monitor. Within firms, hierarchical relationships are being replaced by lateral relationships (e.g. matrix structures and teamwork) further emphasising a growing need for voluntary cooperation, ‘extra-role behaviours’, or in other words, employee engagement (Bijlsma and Koopman, 2003, p. 543). Underpinning the heightened need for cooperation and engagement however, is the fundamental issue of trust.

What then is the relationship between trust and employee engagement? The following activity explores the role of trust in creating an engaged workforce.

Activity 4

Timing: About 60 minutes

In this activity we ask you to access the ACAS website and read the article Placing trust in employee engagement [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (ACAS, 2012). In the article, the relationship between trust and engagement is explored. The author of the article reviews relevant evidence and considers the role of trust in creating an engaged workforce. As you go through the article, make a note of how and why trust needs to be nurtured, developed and embedded within a variety of relationships. To achieve engagement, then answer the following questions:

  • a.How is trust associated with the ‘key enablers’ of engagement?
  • b.The author describes what high trust workplaces may ‘look like’, as well as how to create high trust workplaces in order to raise levels of engagement. Reflect on your own organisation (or one with which you are familiar). How well does your organisation match the description of a high trust workplace? What would need to be done in your organisation in order to match the description of a high trust workplace in this article?


  • a.In this reading the author uses the four key drivers of engagement (MacLeod and Clarke, 2009), those being leadership, line managers, employee voice and integrity. Each of these is argued to have strong associations with trust:
    • Leadership – the author argues that leaders need to let go of command and control styles of leadership in favour of a relationship based on mutuality. Also vital for trust and engagement to be achieved is a need to develop a different style of leadership which is based on humility, personal integrity and humanity.
    • Line managers – a key relationship that affects trust and engagement throughout the organisation is the one between the line manager and the employee. This is developed by a line manager demonstrating consistent day-to-day behaviours, used when giving feedback, setting goals and demonstrating concern for employee well-being, and by also showing they trust their employees.
    • Employee voice – organisations that trust their employees to help develop and implement solutions report improvements in employee engagement.
    • Integrity – integrity is considered essential to building an engaged workforce. The authors asserts there is a clear link between the behaviour of leaders and the stated values of the organisation; gap between these two suggests the values are hollow and this leads to a reduction in both trust and engagement.
  • b.There is no feedback for this part of the question.

While discussing how notions of organisational climate and more broadly culture are implicated in the achievement of employee engagement, it is worth highlighting a common criticism, which is that research and investigation into the phenomenon of employee engagement has been predominantly conducted in European and American contexts (Truss et al., 2014). This issue will be explored in Activity 5.