Work team trust and effectiveness

Publication Date01 Oct 2003
AuthorAna Cristina Costa
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour
Work team trust and
Ana Cristina Costa
Section of Work and Organisational Psychology, Delft University of
Technology, Delft, The Netherlands
Keywords Trust, Behaviour, Performance management, Team working, The Netherlands
Abstract This article aims to explore the nature and functioning of trust in work teams. Trust is
defined as a multi-component variable with distinct but related dimensions. These include
propensity to trust, perceived trustworthiness, co-operative and lack of monitoring behaviours. A
model was tested relating trust with perceived task performance, team satisfaction, and two
dimensions of organisational commitment, i.e. attitudinal and continuance. Survey data from 112
teams(n¼395) was collected in three social care institutions in The Netherlands. The results are
supportive of a multi-component structure for trust and of its importance to the functioning of
teams and organisations. Work team trust appeared strongly related with team member’s
attitudes towards the organisation. Trust between team members was positively associated with
attitudinal commitment and negatively with continuance commitment. Trust was also positively
related with perceived task performance and with team satisfaction. In addition, perceived task
performance appeared strongly related to team satisfaction.
Scholars have long been interested in the study of trust in organisations (e.g.
Gambetta, 1988, Coleman, 1990). During the past few years this interest has
turned into a major focus of organisational literature and research, leading to a
renewed emphasis on the nature, causes and consequences of trust (Hosmer,
1995, Kramer, 1999; Shaw, 1997, Rousseau et al., 1998). This resurgence of
interest is partly explained by the changes in the way of thinking and
functioning of organisations during the last two decades of the millennium. As
organisations have become flatter and more team centr ed, traditional
management forms have given way to more collaborative approaches that
emphasise co-ordination, sharing of responsibilities and the participation of the
workers in the decision processes (Keen, 1990). New emphasis is given on
interpersonal and group dynamics at the workplace, where trust is seen as one
of the critical elements. If trust is absent, no one will risk moving first and all
members will sacrifice the gains from collaboration and co-operation in
increasing effectiveness (Sabel, 1993).
Although scholars agree on the impo rtance of trust in sustaining
effectiveness, research on this topic has been highly affected by the lack of
agreement in defining this concept. One problem of studying trust is the vast
applicability of the term “trust” to different contexts and levels of analysis.
Within the organisational literature, trust has been studied with regard to
interpersonal work relationships, teams, organisations, governance structures
or even societies as a whole. As result, an enormous variety of approaches and
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Work team trust
and effectiveness
Personnel Review
Vol. 32 No. 5, 2003
pp. 605-622
qMCB UP Limited
DOI 10.1108/00483480310488360
definitions have emerged across disciplines, appearing sometimes largely
disconnected and ignoring each other’s contributions, or criticised each other’s
research methods and accomplishments very severely. Recognising that trust
reflects a multitude of roles, functions and levels of analysis has been a turning
point for theory and research on this topic. Instead of accentuating the
differences between conceptualisations, researchers have started to concentrate
on the common elements across perspectives in order to provide coherent
knowledge with regard to trust and its role in the functioning of organisations
(e.g. Hosmer, 1995; Kramer, 1999; Rousseau et al., 1998). Nevertheless, given its
wide domain of research, clear boundaries for the trust concept are necessary in
order to understand what is meant by trust and how to define it. In this article,
we address trust at the work team level that refers to the extent to which team
members trust each within a work team. Similar to other studies that focus on
work team processes (e.g. Gladstein, 1984; Hackman, 1987; Anderson and West,
1996, 1998) we view work teams as performing organisational units. This
means that work teams are real organisational groups, that have some goal or
attainable outcome which team members contribute to and are responsible for,
and where there is sufficient task interdependence such that individuals need to
develop share understandings and expected patterns of behaviour.
We adopt a multidisciplinary perspective on trust by developing and testing
a model based on presuppositions from different literatures including sociology
(e.g. Barber, 1983; Lewis and Weigert, 1985; Luhmann, 1979), economics (e.g.
Cummings and Bromiley, 1996) and the psychological work on interpersonal
and team relationships (e.g. Mayer et al., 1995; McAllister, 1995; Rousseau et al.,
1998; Zand, 1972). The present research aims to contribute to the
understanding of the nature and functioning of trust at team level by
describing trust as a multi-component variable and identifying the factors that
operate combined when trust is taking place, and examining the implications of
trust for the effectiveness of the team.
The concept of trust
To date no definition of trust has been universally accepted. Despite the
differences of opinion, several issues seem common across definitions. As
Rousseau et al. (1998) note from micro psychological theories (e.g. McAllister,
1995; Lewicki and Bunker, 1996; Zand, 1972) to social/economics approaches
(e.g. Barber, 1983; Cummings and Bromiley, 1996) positive expectations
towards the behaviour of others and the willingness to become vulnerable to
others are critical elements to define trust.
In most definitions, trust appears related to individual attributions about
other people’s intentions and motives underlying their behaviour (Smith and
Barclay, 1997). For example, for Lewicki and Bunker (1996) trust involves
“positive expectations about others”. These attributions influence and are
influenced by general beliefs and expectations of individuals about the

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