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Does trust encourage or discourage employees to share their suggestions? Research suggests the answer depends on the “types” of trust being measured.

The positive effects of employees’ trust in their supervisors have been widely documented, such as job engagement, performance, and organizational citizenship behaviors. Given supervisors’ authority in the workplace, we suspect supervisors would bear a critical role in initiating trusting supervisor-employee relationships. As suggested in the social exchange theory, employees may perceive supervisor trust in them as a kind act by the supervisor and feel obligated to return such a kind act with their trust in supervisor. 


The Research 


To examine the relationships among (supervisor) trust in employee, (employee) felt trust, and (employee) trust in supervisor with empirical data, I worked with Drs. Yung-Kuei Huang at National Ilan University in Taiwan and Ning-Kuang Chuang at Kent State University on a project. Our purpose is two-fold.  


1.    To examine the mediating relationships among trust in employee, felt trust, and trust in supervisor with two-dimensional measures:

  1. Reliance-based trust intentions --- trustors’ willingness to rely on trustees’ knowledge, skills, and abilities;
  2. Disclosure-based trust intentions --- trustors’ disclosure of sensitive or personal information to trustees. 


2.    To investigate the direct and indirect effects of the above trust-related variables on customer-focused voice and silence. 

  1. Customer-focused voice --- employees’ efforts to provide constructive suggestions to management with the intent to address customer needs and improve service quality and procedures;
  2. Customer-focused silence --- employees intentionally withhold information, ideas, and concerns that may be potentially important for the improvement or medication of customer services.  


We employed structured equation modeling with 307 valid paired supervisor-employee questionnaires from 32 hotels in Taiwan to test the hypotheses. We then published the results in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management.


The Key Findings


Besides the reciprocity of trust between supervisor trust in employee and employee trust in supervisor, we also discovered some key interesting findings about employees’ customer-focused voice and silence behaviors:  


  1. (Supervisor) reliance-based trust in employee has a significantly positive effect on voice but not silence. 
  2. (Employee) felt reliance positively affects voice but negatively affects silence.
  3. (Employee) felt disclosure has no impact on voice but positively affects silence.
  4. (Employee) reliance-based trust in supervisor negatively affects voice. 
  5. (Employee) disclosure-based trust in supervisor positively affects voice and negatively affects silence. 


Is relying on employees better than disclosing sensitive information to employees? 


It appears that supervisor reliance-based trust in employee can trigger employees’ feeling of being trusted by their supervisor. Then, when employees feel their supervisors rely on them, they would trust their supervisors in return. Furthermore, when supervisors rely more on employees at work, employees become more likely to provide constructive feedback and suggestions for service improvement. 


It is noteworthy to mention that when employees feel their supervisors disclose more sensitive and personal information, they become more likely to withhold their suggestions (i.e., to remain silent). It makes sense that employees might feel reluctant to provide suggestions or inputs when they see their supervisors often share personal and sensitive information with others. 


Our results indicate that employees will trust their supervisors more when their supervisors delegate more important tasks to them but not as much when their supervisors disclose too much personal or sensitive information to them. Accordingly, we present the following:  


Recommendations for Managers and Supervisors


  • Assign employees important tasks and give them decision latitude and autonomy to convey a stronger message of their trust in employees. 
  • At the same time, avoid overly delegating the number of important tasks.  
  • Establish a boundary with their subordinate, allowing them to better manage the amount and content of the personal/sensitive information shared with the employees. 
  • Actively welcome suggestions and inputs from frontline employees to minimize the negative effect of overly delegating important tasks on employee voice. 
  • Clearly and openly express their confidence and positive expectations about employees because employees also need to “feel” the trust before returning supervisors’ trust in them with their trust in supervisors. 


The Conclusion


No study is perfect or free from potential bias. While there are limitations, our work suggests that we must treat reliance-based trust differently from disclosure-based trust in future studies and practices about “trust” at work. Different trust-related variables can trigger psychological responses unique to customer-focused silence and voice. 


In what way do you see the differences between reliance- and disclosure-based trust? What best practices do you see in promoting employee trust in supervisor? How about best practices in helping employees feel or acknowledge their supervisor trust in them?  

Note: The picture was downloaded from


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