Both employers and employees need to take practical steps to maintain or restore trust in the workplace during our recession

CORNELL (US)—Do layoffs, bigger workloads, and reduced benefits for remaining employees mean an erosion of trust in the workplace? Not necessarily, according to Cornell University’s Michele Williams.

Both employers and employees need to take practical steps to maintain or restore that trust, says Williams, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Williams’ research with 147 midcareer professionals and their bosses shows that a supervisor’s perception of worker benevolence can positively affect performance assessments.

Coworkers who appear to be withdrawing from others in the workplace—refusing lunch invitations or chatting less—may be sending a signal of workplace distrust, which can compromise productivity, says Williams.

A first step in rebuilding trust is to put yourself in others’ shoes, Williams says. “Open a conversation, even when all you know is that something doesn’t seem right.”

Williams calls that “perspective taking” and says the trust it builds is especially important in a recession. Perspective taking might even result in a better performance review.

Perspective takers are communicators who value coworkers’ welfare and test their hunches, by asking questions, Williams says, As a result, they are perceived as benevolent and trustworthy.

Taking perspective, Williams says, “generates positive emotions in others and motivates trust, information sharing, cooperation, learning and flexible responses.”
When economic issues outside of work—a spouse’s layoff, increasing bills, diminished investments—are added, the distrust cues sent by others are often overlooked.

“The signals are there, but they don’t get picked up because people are so focused on tasks,” Williams says. Don’t assume you know the root of someone’s apparent distrust, she adds. “You can easily be wrong.”

Perspective taking, at the very least, often helps sort what is a work issue and what might be spillover stress from other areas of a person’s life. Workers who don’t engage in perspective taking, Williams says, lose opportunities to identify distrust and rebuild relationships.

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