SWG 02:

Organizational Trust



Rosalind Searle, Coventry Business School, UK


Reinhard Bachmann, University of Surrey, UK


Nicole Gillespie, University of Queensland, Australia


Antoinette Weibel, University of Konstanz, Germany

During the last decade a wide range of events have considerably shaken people's trust in organizations. Accounting frauds such as the Enron and Worldcom case, and employer trust breaches like the spying scandal of the large German retailer Lidl, have all fuelled questions about organizational trustworthiness. The unprecedented recent events in the global financial sector have focused attention squarely on trust at the organizational level. The problem that arises takes on quite dramatic dimensions as the long term survival of organizations and sustainable organizational performance crucially depends on trust from key stakeholders, such as investors, employees, customers, suppliers and business partners (Barney & Hansen, 1994).

Yet, despite widespread recognition that trust operates at multiple levels (Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt, & Camerer, 1998) and that an organization's reputation for trustworthiness is a key "source of competitive advantage" (Barney & Hansen, 1994: 175), research has been slow to systematically and conceptually unpack the notion of organization-level trust as distinct from interpersonal trust.


At present, there is no clear consensus on the concept of trust or trustworthiness at the organizational level, nor is there coherent theory, an agreed model or sufficient empirical research to guide a comprehensive understanding of organizational trust and how the latter might be linked to trust at more macro and micro levels.


Indeed, relatively few attempts have been made to capture the essence of impersonal trust (for foundational work see Luhmann, 1979; Shapiro, 1987; Zucker, 1986) and how macro and micro level forces influence trust dynamics at the institutional level. Some research suggests that interorganizational trust and public trust in organizations and institutions may have different dimensions than interpersonal trust (e.g. Zaheer, McEvily & Perrone, 1998). Recent and emerging work has started to unpack the concept of organizational trust and identify its determinants. For example, Bachmann (2001) suggests that strongly regulated business systems produce much higher levels of impersonal trust than liberal capitalist systems. Gillespie and Dietz (2009) propose that employees' perceptions of organizational trustworthiness are influenced by cues sent by six key system components, including organizational leadership and management, culture, strategy, structures and policies, external governance, and public reputation.


The latter authors further identify that the processes of trust repair at the organizational level are fundamentally different from those at the interpersonal level, with several dilemmas and problems arising for institutions that do not pertain to interpersonal contexts.

Empirical studies on trust in organizations indicate that, although related to interpersonal trust, organizational trust is a distinct construct with unique antecedents, such as legal arrangements (Arrighetti, Bachmann & Deakin, 1997; Lane & Bachmann, 1996), perceived organizational support (Tan & Tan, 2000) distributive and procedural justice (Cohen-Charash & Spector, 2001; Colquitt, Scott & LePine, 2007) high involvement HR practices (Searle et al., forthcoming; Searle & Skinner, 2011) and organizational control systems (Weibel et al., 2009).


In sum, we seek to offer a critical space in which to systematically and conceptually unpack the notion of organization-level trust as distinct from interpersonal trust, focusing on both trust within and between organizations. Our aim is to inspire a transdisciplinary discourse that complements and contrasts more micro-oriented approaches, such as those originating in psychology or behavioural economics, with insights from sociology, management studies, political science and cultural anthropology.


We also seek to encourage research that complements the methods currently dominating trust research (i.e. survey studies and experiments) with mixed, grounded and critical approaches, including ethnographic and other qualitative methods, as well as novel research designs commonly used in more macro-oriented fields (e.g. con-joint analysis, vignettes, etc.).


The aims of this research agenda include the following activities:

  • Stimulation of critical debate and discussion about organizational trust
  • Promotion of novel methodologies that are specific to, and more appropriate for this topic
  • Support for research projects in the field of organizational trust, particularly amongst early career scholars and PhD students
  • Proactive encouragement of high quality organizational trust papers for publication in key journals and edited collections
  • Development of new approaches to teaching the key issues of organizational trust

Arrighetti, A., R. Bachmann & S. Deakin (1997): 'Contract law, social norms and inter-firm cooperation.' Cambridge Journal of Economics, 21 (2), 171–195
Bachmann, R. (2001): 'Trust, power and control in trans-organizational relations.' Organization Studies, 22 (2), 337–365
Barney, J.B. & M.H. Hansen (1994): 'Trustworthiness as a source of competitive advantage.' Strategic Management Journal, 15, 175–190
Cohen-Charash, Y. & P.E. Spector (2001): 'The role of justice in organizations: A meta-analysis.' Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 86 (2), 278–321
Colquitt, J., B. Scott & J. LePine (2007): 'Trust, trustworthiness, and trust propensity: A meta-analytic test of their unique relationships with risk taking and job performance.' Journal of Applied Psychology, 92 (4), 909–927
Gillespie, N. & G. Dietz (2009): 'Trust Repair after an Organization-Level Failure.' Academy of Management Review, 34 (1), 127–145
Lane, C. & R. Bachmann (1996): 'The social constitution of trust: Supplier relations in Britain and Germany.' Organization Studies, 17 (3), 365–395
Luhmann, N. (1979): Trust and Power: Two Works. New York: Wiley
Rousseau, D.M., S.B. Sitkin, R.S. Burt & C.F. Camerer (1998): 'Not so different after all: A Cross-discipline view of trust.' Academy of Management Review, 23 (3), 393–404
Searle, R., D. Den Hartog, A. Weibel, N. Gillespie, F. Six, T. Hatzakis et al. (2011): 'Trust in the employer: the role of high-involvement work practices and procedural justice in European organizations.' The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 22 (5), 1069–1092.
Searle, R. & D. Skinner (eds.) (2011): Trust and HRM. Chichester: Edward Elgar
Shapiro, S.P. (1987): 'The social control of impersonal trust.' American Journal of Sociology, 93 (3), 623–658
Tan, H.H. & C.S.F. Tan (2000): 'Toward the differentiation of trust in supervisor and trust in organization.' Genetic Social and General Psychology Monographs, 126 (2), 241–260
Weibel, A., R. Searle, D. Den Hartog, T. Hatzakis, F. Six & N. Gillespie (2009): Formal Control as a Driver of Organizational Trustworthiness. Unpublished manuscript
Zaheer, A., B. McEvily & V. Perrone (1998): 'Does trust matter? Exploring the effects of interogranizational and interpersonal trust on performance.' Organization Science, 9 (2), 141–159
Zucker, L.G. (1986): 'Production of trust: Institutional sources of economic structure, 1840–1920.' Research in Organizational Behavior, 8, 53–111

The coordinators


Reinhard Bachmann holds a Chair in Strategy at the University of Surrey, UK. His research interests focus issues of trust and power, specifically in inter-organizational relations. He has published in journals such as Organization Studies, Cambridge Journal of Economics, British Journal of Sociology. With Akbar Zaheer he has co-edited the "Handbook of Trust Research". He is Deputy Editor-in Chief of the Journal of Trust Research and serves on the Editorial Board of Organization Studies.

Nicole Gillespie is Senior Lecturer in Management at UQ Business School, University of Queensland, Australia. Her research focuses on organisational trust, trust repair, and trust measurement and appears in leading journals (e.g. Academy of Management Review, Journal of Management) and books (e.g. co-editor of "Organizational Trust: A Cultural Perspective", Cambridge University Press). She is co-guest editor of the special issue of Organization Studies' on 'Trust in Crisis' and on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Trust Research.

Rosalind Searle recently became Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Psychology at Coventry Business School, UK. She is a chartered occupational psychologist and chairs the British Psychological Society's (BPS) Division of Occupational Psychology's (DOP) International Strategy Group, and co-convenes their special group on "diversity matters", which is an initiative working together with leading UK organisations to raise awareness and offer practical guidance regarding how to increase the number of women and ethnic minorities on boards in the UK. Recently, she was special advisor for a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for a two-part program on "Women on Boards" in the UK, which will be aired in September 2012. Rosalind's research interests are two fold: organizational trust and recruitment and selection. Concerning trust, she is co-convenor of the EGOS Standing Working Group "Organizational Trust", and author of a number of chapters, edited books and journal articles on the topics of organizational trust and HR systems. She is interested in what makes employees trust their employing organisations, and especially in the role of selection and performance management systems. She recently completed a CIPD sponsored study looking at trust repair in the UK plc and will be disseminating these new findings. She is interested in cross cultural dimensions to organisational trust. Her second area of research is recruitment and selection. She has been a special advisor for some of the UK's Royal Colleges of Medicine regarding their selection processes for PG medical selection. Her interests here are on the role of trust and also gender and ethnic minority basis. She has also worked in the field of social work selection and development. Rosalind sits on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Management and is an Associate Editor of the Journal of Trust Research.

Antoinette Weibel holds a Chair in Management and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz, Germany. Her research focuses on motivation, happiness and trust and appeared in leading journals (e.g. Public Administration Research and Theory, Group and Organization Management) and books ("Control in Organizations: New Directions in Theory and Research", Cambridge University Press). She is President of FINT, the First International Network of Trust Research, and on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Trust Research