Measuring trust inside organisations

Publication Date01 Sep 2006
AuthorGraham Dietz,Deanne N. Den Hartog
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour
Measuring trust inside
Graham Dietz
Durham Business School, Durham, UK, and
Deanne N. Den Hartog
Universiteit van Amsterdam Business School, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to examine the extent to which measures and
operationalisations of intra-organisational trust reflect the essential elements of the existing
conceptualisation of trust inside the workplace.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper provides an overview of the essential points from the
rich variety of competing conceptualisations and definitions in the management and organisational
literatures. It draws on this overview to present a framework of issues for researchers to consider when
designing research based on trust. This framework is then used to analyse the content of 14 recently
published empirical measures of intra-organisational trust. It is noted for each measure the form that
trust takes, the content, the sources of evidence and the identity of the recipient, as well as matters
related to the wording of items.
Findings – The paper highlights where existing measures match the theory, but also shows a
number of “blind-spots” or contradictions, particularly over the content of the trust belief, the selection
of possible sources of evidence for trust, and inconsistencies in the identity of the referent.
Research limitations/implications – It offers researchers some recommendations for future
research designed to capture trust among different parties in organisations, and contains an Appendix
with 14 measures for intra-organisational trust.
Originality/value The value of the paper is twofold: it provides an overview of the
conceptualisation literature, and a detailed content-analysis of several different measures for trust.
This should prove useful in helping researchers refine their research designs in the future.
Keywords Trust, Organizations,Workplace
Paper type General review
The organisational and management literature on trust is now extensive, and includes
several key articles (e.g. Mayer et al., 1995; Robinson, 1996; Whitener, 1997; Kramer,
1999), four significant compendiums of papers (Gambetta, 1988; Kramer and Tyler,
1996; Lane and Bachmann, 1998; Nooteboom and Six, 2003), and several dedicated
journal editions (including Academy of Management Review, 1998, Vol. 23, No. 3;
Organization Studies, 2001, Vol. 22, No. 2; Organization Science, 2003, Vol. 14, No. 1;
International Journal of Human Resource Management, 2003, Vol. 14, No. 1, and
Personnel Review, 2003, Vol. 32, No. 5).
Despite this resurgence of interest the treatment of trust remains extremely
“fragmented” (McEvily et al., 2003, p. 91). Firstly, there are three broad strands
in the literature. Our focus here is exclusively with trust within organisations
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
The authors wish to thank Nicole Gillespie for several insightful comments and suggestions on
earlier drafts of this paper.
Measuring trust
Personnel Review
Vol. 35 No. 5, 2006
pp. 557-588
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/00483480610682299
(i.e. as an intra-organisational phenomenon, such as between employees and
supervisors/managers, or among co-workers). The other two strands deal with trust
between organisations (i.e. an inter-organisational phenomenon), and trust between
organisations and their customers (i.e. a marketing concern). Secondly, competing
conceptualisations and definitions have emerged and the precise nature of trust
remains contested. This is in part due to the different perspectives and academic
disciplines informing empirical studies and theorising on the subject (for an overview
see Rousseau et al., 1998). It is also a consequence of most scholars regarding trust as a
multi-dimensional construct (Butler, 1991). Put simply, opinions continue to differ on
which dimensions are essential.
Several measures of intra-organisational trust are also available. Such a range of
possible operationalisations may reflect the multi-disciplinary interest in trust, and its
multi-dimensional nature, but it also hints at continuing dissatisfaction with the
existing set of measures, an impression strengthened by the fact that there has been
very little in the way of repeat testing of the instruments that we do have. Since our
knowledge of a construct can only be as good as the measures we use to examine it, it is
essential to evaluate the “validity” of these instruments (e.g. Schriesheim et al., 1993)
not only for their statistical performance, but perhaps more importantly for how well
they reflect the conceptualisation of the construct, with due consideration to its
subtleties. Thus, our goal here is an examination of the extent to which available
operationalisations of intra-organisational trust reflect the elements of the existing
conceptualisation in the management literature. On this point, Currall and Judge (1995)
have noted that what consensus has been reached on conceptualisation does no t appear
to have been translated into operationalisations in empirical research. In this paper, we
set out to investigate this apparent “gap”.
The paper is set out as follows. Before we can identify criteria for assessing the
various measures, we need to be clear what it is we are measuring. Hence, the first
section provides an overview of the debate on the conceptualisation and definition of
trust within organisations. It highlights four main aspects: the different forms trust can
take, its content, the sources of evidence informing it, and the identity of the referent
(the person being trusted). From these we formulate guidelines for an examination of
the content of 14 recent operationalisations of trust. We conclude with commentary on
where we believe the possible “blind spots” of the current measures are, and we offer
some recommendations for researchers to consider which might improve our
operationalisation of this “central, superficially obvious but essentially complex”
concept (Blois, 1999, p. 197).
A conceptualisation of trust
The challenge facing researchers interested in trust is that a great deal is involved in
the process of party “A” (the trustor) trusting party “B” (the trustee).
The first consideration is the possible forms that trust can take. Drawing on
elements from the most-quoted definitions of trust (presented in Table I), this can be
broken down into three constituent parts: trust as a belief, as a decision, and as an
The first form of trust is a subjective, aggregated, and confident set of beliefs about
the other party and one’s relationship with her/him, which lead one to assume that the
other party’s likely actions will have positive consequences for oneself. Another way of
representing this belief is as an assessment of the other party’s trustworthiness.
However, trustworthiness and trust are two separate constructs (Mayer et al., 1995,
pp. 711, 729): trustworthiness is a quality that the trustee has, while trusting is
something that the trustor does. Although A may consider B to be trustworthy this
does not necessarily mean that A will actually trust B. Other factors may interven e
(discussed below). A’s belief in B’s trustworthiness is nevertheless expected to be a
strong predictor of A’s decision to trust B, since the belief is based on “probabilities”
(Nooteboom et al., 1997) and carries a crucial “strength of feeling” (Bhattacharya et al.,
1998, p. 462) that elevates it above mere hopefulness, blind faith or gullibility (McEvily
et al., 2003, p. 99).
The second form of trust is the decision to actually trust the other party. This is the
stage at which the belief in the others’ trustworthiness is manifested – partially – in
trust itself. For a genuine state of trust to exist both the expectation of trustworthy
behaviour and the intention to act based upon it must be present (Huff and Kelle y,
2003, p. 82). Clark and Payne (1997, p. 217) similarly view trust as “a process model
where the decision to trust is based on an underlying subjective base of trust which
conditions the intention to trust” (Costa, 2003). This decision has been defined as the
“willingness to render oneself vulnerable” (Mayer et al., 1995; Rousseau et al., 1998). At
this stage, A considers B to be trustworthy, and further intends to allow her/himself to
be subject to the risk of potentially detrimental actions on the part of B, on the basis
that such outcomes are unlikely.
However, this decision implies only an intention to act. For A to demonstrate
unequivocally her/his trust in B, (s)he must follow through on this decision by engaging
in any of the trust-informed risk-taking behaviours proposed by different authors
(Sitkin and Pablo, 1992; Mayer et al., 1995; Costa et al., 2001). Gillespie (2003, 2004)
Definition Author
The conscious regulation of one’s dependence on another Zand (1972)
The extent to which one is willing to ascribe good intentions to and have
confidence in the words and actions of other people
Cook and Wall (1980)
A state involving confident positive expectations about another’s motives
with respect to oneself in situations entailing risk
Boon and Holmes (1991)
The extent to which a person is confident in, and willing to act on the basis
of, the words, actions and decisions, of another
McAllister (1995)
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 trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control
that other party
Mayer et al. (1995)
The specific expectation that an other’s actions will be beneficial rather
than detrimental and the generalised ability to take for granted ...a vast
array of features of the social order.
Creed and Miles (1996)
Confident positive expectations regarding another’s conduct in a context
of risk
Lewicki et al. (1998)
...reflects an expectation or belief that the other party will act
Whitener et al. (1998)
A psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability [to
another] based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behaviour
of another
Rousseau et al. (1998) Table I.
Common definitions of
Measuring trust

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