The Downside of Feeling Trusted by Your Boss at Work

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For researchers who study the question of what makes companies and other organizations hum along effectively, trust is a vital concept. A great deal of research has centered on the idea that the more trust exists among an organization’s employees, the better — trust is a vital aspect of working together as a team, after all.

But in a new article in the Academy of Management Journal, a team led by Dr. Michael D. Baer of Arizona State University argues that researchers have mostly only studied this concept in one direction — the phenomenon of feeling trusted in the workplace “has drawn a fraction of the attention given to the phenomenon of trusting.” And what little research there is has come to a straightforward conclusion: feeling trusted is great. What if things are more complicated than that?

Now, intuitively, it makes sense to think that feeling trusted is a positive thing. It’s nice when your boss trusts you — when they ask for your opinion on something usually above your pay grade, or give you an important project to do on your own. It instills a sense of pride, a feeling that you’re good at your job and valued by your organization. But Baer and his colleagues argue that there could be downsides as well: Couldn’t feeling trusted also lead to burnout, to an increase in responsibilities and work pressure? They decided to start prodding at this question by digging into the work lives of a bunch of bus drivers in London.

Some definitions are in order: Trust, in this context, is defined as “a willingness to be vulnerable based on perceived trustworthiness.” If I trust you to do something important for me, in other words, it means that I’m opening myself up to the possibility you’ll muck up the task, which could have negative ramifications for me. Feeling trusted, then, simply means that you perceive that someone else has enough faith in you to put themselves at risk by delegating or partially delegating an important task or decision to you.

In learning about the London bus drivers, the authors quickly discovered that while “the work of drivers may seem solitary,” there were a great deal of “meaningful interactions with supervisors that created opportunities to demonstrate trust”:

Supervisors described asking drivers to mentor junior employees, provide input into others’ performance appraisals, and comment on traffic routes and timing issues. Drivers described being asked to do supervisors’ tasks, such as putting out route cards or handling schedule swapping, while being kept ‘in the know’ about sensitive information (e.g., new routes, upcoming changes, thoughts on upper management).  One bus driver commented on the frequency of these requests, noting “Sometimes it feels like I’m the supervisor and my supervisor is the driver! I get asked a lot about stuff when I’m on the road, which makes sense as I’m my supervisor’s eyes and ears, I guess.”

The researchers wondered how the potential positive and negative effects of all of this would balance one another out. For example: While being given newer and higher-level tasks certainly increases your level of engagement, it also brings with it the potential for overwork and burnout. When feeling trusted brings with it a complicated mix of consequences, in other words, what’s the net effect on your well-being as an employee?

Baer and his colleagues collected three waves of survey data from a sample of 219 of the drivers — they were 46 years old on average, and overwhelmingly male (the participants had a chance to win a bit of money in exchange for their time). Participants were asked how trusted, emotionally exhausted, and proud they felt, and their supervisors were asked about their performance.

Crunching the numbers and summing up their findings, the authors write:

Our results challenge [the consensus that feeling trusted at work is a positive thing] in a number of respects. On the one hand, our study shows that feeling trusted can make employees feel more proud of themselves and their work—a feeling which can have a number of cognitive and affective benefits… On the other hand, our study shows that feeling trusted can make employees perceive a greater workload. It can bring more to do and more to think about. Our study also shows that feeling trusted can make employees more concerned about maintaining their reputations. It signals that a positive image has been attained, but how can that image be preserved moving forward? Taken together, concerns about workload and reputation maintenance can make employees feel more emotionally exhausted—a sense of depletion that negatively impacted job performance. 

Some past theoretical work in the literature had also suggested that the increased feeling of pride that came from being trusted could counteract the exhaustion that comes with more responsibilities. The researchers didn’t find evidence to support this notion: In their data, “pride [did] not seem to moderate the relationship between perceived workload and emotional exhaustion.”

So, where does that leave things? There’s a lot more to be learned about the downside of feeling trusted, but in the meantime, the authors offer some tentative suggestions for how managers can mitigate these effects.

How, then, should managers handle these feeling trusted dynamics? One important ingredient is awareness, as managers may look at trusted employees as indefatigable “rocks” who can take on ever more responsibility. Simply realizing that emotional exhaustion can be an issue—even for the most trusted—can open up steps for addressing it. One step would be accentuating the positives of feeling trusted. Those accents could often be an exercise in rhetoric, with managers pausing to acknowledge their trust, along with the actions that earned it. Research on transformational leadership illustrates the energizing power of rhetoric, when applied effectively (Judge, Woolf, Hurst, & Livingston, 2008).

Another step would be to limit the negatives associated with feeling trusted. As the acceptance of vulnerability brings additional responsibilities for a given employee, chores that could be allocated elsewhere (or eliminated altogether) could be subtracted. In this way, feeling trusted might result in a different “work mix” without resulting in a higher workload. With respect to reputation, managers could pause when trusting employees with important tasks to note that an employee’s image need not rise and fall with every performance event. Research has shown that a fear of failure can result in ineffective emotional states and self-regulation approaches (Conroy, Willow, & Metzler, 2002). Reassuring trusted employees that their hardearned reputation is not at risk with every stretching assignment could ease an unnecessary burden. Of course, an additional step is simply to offer social support. Reviews of the stress literature continue to show that support—whether from work or nonwork sources—can reduce emotional exhaustion and other forms of strain (Maslach et al., 2001).

This is all easier said than done, of course — is it realistic to imagine managers assigning underlings new tasks, but then tell them that their performance on those tasks doesn’t actually matter from a reputational standpoint? But the authors themselves acknowledge this is a new area — what’s important here is the baseline realization that feeling trusted isn’t always a good thing. As they note, this is one instance in which simply being aware of what’s going on is a good, important start.