Maritz Study on Employee Distrust for Leadership

Maritz Research recently released the results of a survey they conducted on trust in the workplace. Their study suggests that trust is in bad shape. I interviewed Rick Garlick of Maritz about the study. My interview with Rick is directly below his brief bio.

Rick Garlick is Director of Consulting and Strategic Implementation for Maritz Research. He has worked with many Fortune 500 companies to translate research findings into actionable solutions with the goal of driving organizational growth and profitability.

Before joining Maritz nine years ago, he spent seven years working with The Gallup Organization. Prior to entering the private sector as a researcher and consultant, Rick spent a number of years as a university professor where he taught courses in research methods, statistics, marketing, communication, and psychology. He received his Ph.D. from Michigan State in 1987.

1. How did you define trust in your study? Can you give me some examples of questions you asked to measure trust?

We ask a series of questions regarding three areas of trust: (a) senior management trust; (b) direct supervisor trust; and (c) co-worker trust. While our statistical analysis shows these to be three separate concepts, it is not surprising that ‘low’ trust environments then to have all three. As an aside, we did some examination of situations where co-worker trust was high and management trust was low and found employees in these situations were much more likely to support unionization, although support for unionization was generally low due to high amounts of mistrust of both management and co-workers.

A sample of questions we used to measure trust (some of which are referenced in the press release; some of which are used in our analysis, but not referenced:

  • I completely trust my employer to look out for my best interests.
  • My company’s leaders are completely ethical and honest.
  • Senior management’s actions are completely consistent with their words.
  • I trust management to make the right decisions in times of uncertainly.
  • My supervisor is concerned about my personal well-being.
  • My supervisor’s actions are completely consistent with his or her words.
  • I completely trust my co-workers to look out for my best interests.
  • At my company, everyone is on the same team working toward the same goals.

2. Your study found a big lack of trust in management. What’s your explanation for this?

Several things: First of all, we started measuring these things at the start of the decade (2000.) After the Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, and other scandals, we already saw a sharp decline in employee-employer trust which never came back. You can imagine how trust has been further impacted by all the bad things we’ve read about ‘greedy’ CEOs in the last couple of years. Add to the fact that very large numbers of people in our study worked for companies that had significant layoffs in the past couple of years, When people are the ones left behind, they often wonder if they are next. Co-worker trust suffers as well since you and your co-worker might be competing to see who gets to keep their job. Furthermore, when companies are publically traded, everyone understands that when profits are low, people are often ‘thrown overboard’ to save costs. That also fosters management mistrust.

3. Do you have any data on how trustworthy people in management positions perceive themselves to be? How about data on how trustworthy employees see themselves as being?

The problem is that everyone self-reports themselves to be the most trustworthy, hardest working, team player, etc. in the company. That’s why we always phrase these types of questions in the second or third person such as ‘My co-workers do all they can to uphold the dignity of all persons in the workplace’ or ‘At my company, everyone is on the same team, working toward the same goals.’ If we asked, ‘To what extent can you be trusted?’ or ‘To what extent are you a team player?’, nearly everyone would answer in the affirmative. It is like asking people whether or not they are a good driver. Very few would admit to being a poor driver–you have to look at how others see the person. Similarly, everyone sees themselves as trustworthy–you have to ask others to get a true read.

4. In tough economic times, is trust harder to build and easier to destroy? What is your outlook on trends in trust as the economy improves in the next few years?

It is harder to maintain trust in economic hard times for many of the reasons I’ve already cited: fear of either losing a job personally or seeing co-workers lose jobs; the belief that everyone will ‘take care’ of themselves first; losing resources, opportunities, etc. When you think about it, trust is something that is noticed most when it is tested under fire. Do co-workers come through in a pinch? Does my company do all it can to keep its people in down times? Does my company communicate openly and honestly? Do my senior leaders show evidence they sacrifice themselves when they ask other to sacrifice? It is easy to say the right things, but much more difficult to walk the talk, particularly when there is business pressure. Our data has shown that companies establish a reputation that lasts for a long time, so even if times get better, if they do things to hurt trust now, the perception will linger. People have long memories when it comes to those kinds of things. I think of some of the draconian measures United Airlines took a few years ago when they were on the cusp of bankruptcy, like eliminating worker pensions. Employees are still bitter.

A key concept related to trust is company values. We have another white paper from an earlier study we did that shows how perceived company values impact performance. When employees really believe their employers will do the right thing by their employees and customers, there is clear evidence of stronger business performance. When employees believe companies are just ‘in it for themselves’, their performance and commitment is significantly lessened. There are even instances where companies are identified as having high-minded stated values, but are found to lack a moral compass. In these cases, saying the right things does little good.

Bret L. Simmons, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Management at The University of Nevada, Reno. He earned his doctorate in Business Administration at Oklahoma State University. Bret blogs about leadership and social business at his website Positive Organizational Behavior. You can also find him on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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