Trust in Professional Relationships in Organizations

There are a variety of definitions of interpersonal trust within organizations. However, in the organizational trust literature, most conceptualizations of trust refer to the concept as representing a belief or expectation about the other (trusted) party (similarly to the concept described above), or as a behavioural intention or willingness to depend or rely on another party, coupled with a sense of vulnerability or risk if the trust is violated (Grabner-Kraeuter & Kaluscha, 2003).

First of all, the contributions of behavioural psychologists on the notion of trust are notable. These scholars concentrate their efforts on studying trust in laboratory experiments where they typically investigate trust in prisoner’s dilemma games. In respect of this research tradition, trust is generally conceptualized by following a strictly behavioural interpretation of the construct, as they equate trust with cooperation with others in such games. Here, to trust simply means that an individual chooses to show a cooperative behaviour. Parallel to most of the earlier-described research approaches to interpersonal trust, behavioural scholars typically focus on the evaluation of situational variables that increase or decrease a person’s level of trust (i.e., cooperation) or distrust (i.e., competition) towards other people in the game. However, behavioural researchers typically neglect the events in the human mind and the psychological nature of trust. Using behaviours as a proxy of trust also gives rise to some concerns. A subsequent section will discuss this issue more in detail.

Morton Deutsch (1958) is one of the best-known members of the experimental research group. Equivalently to other behavioural scientists, he termed trust as being the conceptual equivalent of cooperative behaviour. However, he made this claim in specific reference to the context of game theory. Hence, for this scholar, trust is a risk taking behaviour which is evaluated in a situation-specific manner by the individual. Deutsch’s main assertion is that trust is a nonrational choice of a person who faces the uncertainty of a future event where the expected gain is smaller than the expected loss. He concludes that trust is an expectation set that triggers behavioural intentions which involve potential harm, because of the absence of control over those persons upon whom the truster ultimately depends (Gefen & Straub, 2004). Hence, Deutsch (1958) stresses the vulnerability aspect of trust, as the trusting person “will be worse off, if he (she) trusts and his (her) trust is not fulfilled than if he (she) does not trust” (p. 266). In line with this argumentation, trust is the non-rational expectation of the outcome of an uncertain event, given conditions of personal vulnerability. To trust means being at risk of potential loss if the trusted referent takes the advantage of truster’s vulnerability. This expectation seems to be best described by the term “confidence”; however, Deutsch never made this explicit claim. Later, Deutsch (1960) made a more concrete reference to the concept, as he investigated the background of why an individual would trust another to produce some beneficial events (Mayer et al., 1995). He concludes that the “individual must have confidence that the other individual has the ability and intention to produce it” (p. 125). The concept of confidence also surfaces in subsequent research of social psychologists, with Cook and Wall (1980) among them. The scholars define trust as “the extent to which one is willing to ascribe good intentions to and have confidence in the words and actions of other people” (p. 39).

The vulnerability aspect of trust (or the central condition of present risk) is emphasized also by Zand (1972), as the scholar notes that to trust means that a person increases his/her vulnerability to others whose behaviour he/she cannot control nor completely predict. Trust is here conceptualized as having two dimensions, namely personal behaviour and individual expectations. The behaviour, which is also termed “decision to trust”, can be best described as the choice of giving up control. Such a decision is certainly influenced by the kind of problem or the extent of personal vulnerability, but further by the expectations of the consequences. Here, confidence can once again be regarded as being synonymous with trust, but Zand’s central claim is still the individual’s decision to give up control over the outcome. In sum, interpersonal trust is a decision of the individual person which is based on an optimistic expectation or the confidence about the result of a yet uncertain event in the condition of personal vulnerability and a lack of personal control over the behaviours of the interaction partner. Golembiewski and McConkie (1975) further equate the notion of trust and confidence by stating that trust generally “implies reliance on, or confidence in, some event, process or person”. However, this reliance is acknowledged to be non-rational and, being rooted in personal perceptions and experiences, subjective. In opposition to Zand (1972), who views trust as a duality, the authors instead conceptualize trust as a continuum. Trust equals the amount of a person’s hope for a beneficial outcome. They conclude that trust is “strongly linked to confidence in, and overall optimism about, desirable events taking place” (p. 134). In their conceptualization of trust, Ring and Van de Ven (1992) go even further and emphasize the predominant role of confidence for interpersonal trust. To them, trust rises due to a mixture of two aspects, namely (i) the confidence or predictability in one’s expectations and (ii) the confidence in the other’s goodwill. In line with the earlier definition of trust proposed by Barber (1983), moral values are the key to trust. Specifically, benevolence, which can be described as the duty to take care for the protection of others, and good will, which represents a person’s intent to respect the interests of others, both take a prominent role in the behavioural definitions of trust.

Discroll (1978) views organizational trust as “the belief that the decision makers will produce outcomes favourable to the person’s interests without any influence by the person” (p. 44). Sitkin and Roth (1993) define trust as an individual’s belief and expectation about the likelihood of having a desirable action performed by the trustee. Lewicki and Bunker (1995) understand trust as an expectation about the behaviour of others in transactions. Hosmer (1995), who provides one of the most complete reviews of the meanings and conceptualizations of prior trust literature in the past, emphasizes the importance of the concept on the societal level in the formation of mutually pleasing business relationships. In reference to early psychology and sociology research, he defines trust as an optimistic expectation that other individuals or companies will behave ethically. More specifically, Hosmer (1995, p. 393) proposes the following definition: “Trust is the reliance by one person, group or firm upon a voluntarily accepted duty on the part of another person, group or firm to recognize and protect the rights and interests of all others engaged in a joint endeavor or economic exchange”.

Today’s multi-dimensional understanding of trust is mainly based on a key conceptual model proposed by Mayer, Davis and Shoorman (1995). By striving for an integration of perspectives from multiple disciplines, Mayer et al. (1995) advance a definition of trust that has been cited over 1,100 times in a wide range of disciplines (Schoorman, Mayer & Davis, 2007). Today one can confidently claim that their conceptualization is of the most frequently cited definitions in the contemporary trust literature. The authors mainly take a modern social psychological standpoint. In essence, they define trust as a truster’s intention to take a risk and suggest that the truster’s perceptions of the trustee’s characteristics (i.e., the trustworthiness of a trustee) are the antecedents of trust. More specifically, Mayer et al. (1995) understand trust as “the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the truster, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party” (p. 712). The proposed conceptualization of trust parallels the work of Gambetta (1988); however, they make the critical addition of vulnerability. Specifically, Mayer et al.’s (1995) definition embeds two significant components of trust: trust is composed of (1) a truster’s set of specific beliefs about certain qualities or characteristics the trustee owns or lacks, and (2) a set of general beliefs, which represent the truster’s willingness to be vulnerable. The latter is represented by behavioural intentions which are based on the former or the reasons to behave (i.e., the trustee’s trustworthiness). Trusting beliefs as well as intentions have to be present in order that “true trust” exists. The authors are able to elicit three (contextual) perceptions regarding the other person’s attributes that stimulate trustworthiness, namely ability, benevolence, and integrity. Mayer et al.’s (1995) model focuses on the truster and recognizes the interaction partner only in terms of what they are about to do to the truster and which motives rule their behaviour. According to the authors and in contrast to others’ assumptions, confidence can also be logically differentiated from trust. Furthermore, the definition emphasizes the role of the truster’s purpose of interaction and the truster’s outcomes of interaction. The choice to trust is purely made by the truster and it is the product resulting from trust that furnishes the truster with a personal benefit. In general, the distinction between trust as a set of specific beliefs and trust as a general belief has been mainly applied to studies dealing with interpersonal interactions (Gefen et al., 2003) as it is applicable to an exchange relationship between at least two parties and in case this relationship is of a personal nature. The relevance for online review interactions follows.

Another author who emphasizes a conceptual relationship between trust and a person’s willingness to be vulnerable is Mishra (1996). By applying this view the author follows the notion of vulnerability earlier proposed by various scholars (Deutsch, 1973; Luhmann, 1979), but he additionally grounds his definition of trust on the relevance of expectations or beliefs (Barber, 1983; Luhmann, 1979. More specifically, the author defines trust as a party’s willingness to be vulnerable to another party based on the belief that the latter party is competent, open, concerned, and reliable. Mishra states that trust is an overall concept, nevertheless the scholar advances the view that the construct is multi-dimensional, being composed of these four belief dimensions. Additionally, these elements of trust seem to be combined in a multiplicative way as Mishra (1996, p. 229) states “[...] a lower level of trust in terms of any of the dimensions offsets high levels of trust in terms of the other dimension”.


A great proportion of research on interpersonal trust suggests that the truster’s willingness to act represents a critical element in the notion of trust (Albrecht & Travaglione, 2003; Mayer & Davis, 1999; McAllister, 1995). Accordingly, Ferres et al. (2004) define trust as the employee’s willingness to act. This behavioural intention, however, is based on the employee’s perception of the trustworthiness of the other party. The essence of these conceptualizations is that trust is a person’s willingness to rely on the trustee under the condition that the truster is exposed to personal vulnerability, as well as dependence on the actions of the trustee.

In contrast to earlier research approaches that have implicitly assumed trust to be unidimensional (e.g., Larzerele & Huston, 1980; Rotter, 1967), the above mentioned conceptualizations further advance the impression that trust can be expected to be, in fact, a higher-order construct composed out of diverse (multi-dimensional) factors which may vary due to the context or trust object itself. For instance, Mishra (1996) concludes that approaches that conceptualize and operationalize trust as consisting of a single dimension are not able to discriminate trust from other related constructs such as familiarity and cooperation. Therefore, the author insisted on a four-dimensional understanding of interpersonal trust. In an early contribution on the “bases of trust” in working relationships, Gabarro (1978) also advances a slightly different multi-dimensional conceptualization. In a similar vein, Butler and Cantrell (1984) investigate the interpersonal nature of trust and the relevance of the concept for relationships in organizations. To them, trust is a condition for cooperation. By synthesizing earlier work, Butler and Cantrell propose five distinct components of trust or attributes of the referent. They assumed that the relative importance of each dimension would differ according to the occupational position of the person within the firm (superior or subordinate): (1) integrity - means the reputation of the trustee for being honest and truthful; (2) competence - describes both the technical expertise and interpersonal skill (soft-skills) required to perform the job; (3) consistency - is the reliability, predictability, and good judgment in handling certain situations; (4) loyalty - is understood as the benevolent motives or the willingness to protect, support, and encourage others; and (5) openness - is the mental accessibility, or the willingness to share ideas and information freely with others (Pirson, 2007). Butler and Cantrell’s (1984) conceptualization particularly stresses the importance of ethical considerations, as four of the five components represent moral values (i.e., integrity, consistency, loyalty, and openness). By advancing his research, Butler (1991) later specifies the loyalty dimension, as the scholar changes his earlier notion from a proposed attitude of general benevolence to an implicit promise from one individual in the dyad relationships not to cause harm to the other party. Mayer et al. (1995) and Mayer and Davis (1999) also add “benevolence” to the factors of trustworthiness. Here, benevolence refers to the extent a trustee is believed to intend to do good to the truster.

Another critical contribution towards a multi-dimensional trust scale has been made by McKnight, Cummings and Chervany (1998). The scholars conceptually extend the model of

Mayer et al. (1995) and propose a comprehensive model on the formation of initial trust. It is based on the assumption that trust can be developed without experience with the object of trust (i.e., level of trust at first sight). The scholars define trusting as “that one believes in, and is willing to depend on, another party” (p. 474). According to their definition of trust, trust can be broken down into two major sub-constructs: (1) trusting beliefs (i.e., trustworthiness in Mayer et al.’s model), which are cognitive concerns in respect to the trustee’s trustworthiness in a given situation; and (2) trusting intentions (i.e., “trust” in Mayer et al.’s model), capturing the notion that the truster is willing to depend on the trustee in a given situation. These trusting intentions are in fact a function of the four trusting beliefs, namely benevolence, competence, honesty and predictability. Later, this model was successfully empirically tested (McKnight et al., 2002a) and various studies used this measurement approach (e.g., Gefen & Straub, 2004; Schlosser et al., 2006).

The previously cited research has concentrated its efforts on the investigation of the characteristics of the trustworthy party or trustee which can be best described as consisting of multiple (mostly cognitive) trusting beliefs. However, another research stream has attempted to examine the multi-dimensional nature of trust in a broader context. Here, the contributions of McAllister (1995) are especially notable, as he differentiates trust’s cognitive and social- emotional aspects. The role of emotions was recognized implicitly in earlier approaches by including elements of perceived social bonds or morality. However, the scholar’s work provides first evidence that a more clear distinction between cognitive-based trust, which represents the rationale part of human judgment that involves a referent’s use of evidence and rational analysis in order to form attributes of the trust components, and affect-based trust, which stems from emotional bonds among individuals. Affect-based trust, on the other hand, is rooted in reciprocated interpersonal care and concern. According to McAllister (1995), this type of trust represents a high level of interpersonal trust.

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