LILA ~ Learning Innovations Laboratory at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Looking for content and documents from our Gatherings? Login

Trust – Harnessing the Power of Agency and Belonging

Posted by


During the October LILA gathering, we explored what agency looks like from two different perspectives.  Ivano Cardinale shared his work on pre-reflective and reflective agency and Rachel Arnette shared her research on rich cultural expression. During the gathering, we identified some puzzles specifically related to the role of trust in agency.  For the November LILA member call we were joined by Mike Baer who is Associate Professor & Dean’s Council Distinguished Scholar at W. P. Carey Management and Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University.  His research explores alternative perspectives on trust in the workplace, including some drawbacks of both trusting others and being trusted.  This is a summary of his presentation.  You can listen to the recording of the member call by accessing it in the LILA Teams folder or the LILA website.

Presentation Notes

People have an inherent need for belonging and agency, which can be fulfilled by trust in different ways. But just what is trust? It is the willingness to be vulnerable—to take a risk—in a relationship based on positive expectations of the trustee. And in the workplace belonging and agency matter because of their impact on job performance, commitment to the organization, and well-being.

Mike’s research suggests that feeling trusted and having an opportunity to trust others can increase employees’ sense of belonging and agency.

By a wide margin, the three biggest predictors of trust are ability, benevolence and integrity. (There is also trust propensity – a personality trait where someone is more willing to believe that others are reliable – but this can go away.)

A few examples of trusting behavior include the supervisor’s willingness to rely on the employee’s skills and abilities, to disclose sensitive information or feelings to the employee, and to reduce monitoring of the employee.

Benefits and Downsides of Being Trusted

When employees feel trusted, they feel a greater sense of belonging and agency, which improves task performance, makes them more willing to be inclusive towards others, and makes them more likely to take the risk to voice or articulate problems with the organization. In this light, psychological safety and trust are critical antecedents to employee engagement.

However, research shows that as employees have higher levels of trust they

  • receive much higher levels of workload from their supervisor and
  • have higher levels of concern about their reputation.

Ultimately, trust fosters belonging, agency, while also increasing workload, reputation concerns, and anxiety, which harmed task performance and increased burnout. The solution for supervisors is NOT to stop giving trusted employees the important assignments, but to

  • distribute workload more evenly,
  • overcome hesitance and give ‘less trusted’ employees the opportunity to become trusted, and
  • cultivate psychological safety and develop an organizational culture of tolerance towards failure. Explicitly reassure employees that mistakes are acceptable in stretch assignments.

Resource Allocation

One’s perception of fairness at the workplace is overwhelmingly based on one’s view of whether one’s supervisor adheres to good and fair rules to allocates resources (e.g. pay, promotion, assignments, degree of autonomy). It is a key driver of employee motivation, commitment and performance, as well as a key to feeling a sense of belonging.

To allocate resources, three rules are typically used:

  1. Equality (everyone gets an equal amount of the reward, like a bonus)
    • Organizations sometimes use this rule
  2. Equity (the better performers get more of the rewards)
    • Organizations almost entirely use this.
  3. Multiple studies show that most employees think the equity rule brings about the fairest allocation of resources in an organization. We are hypersensitive to inequity, sensitive to not just what we receive but what we receive compared to someone else.
    • Need (those who need more resources are given more resources).
    • Organizations very rarely use this.

Although almost no one endorses considerations of need as a way to allocate resources such as money, in situations that concern other resources such as accommodations or shift preference, more endorse this ‘need’ rule. In fact, we endorse considerations of need very highly, even more than we endorse equity and equality, when it concerns someone who is viewed as part of our group. But the converse is true: when we do not see someone else as part of our group, we tend to prefer equity and equality as guiding rules.

To the extent that organizations can help employees see each other as part of the same group, there will be greater acceptance of resource allocation according to need. We form ‘trust’ heuristics and ‘swiftly’ trust people who are part of our group. If there is a salient signal that another person is part of our group, we project our positive qualities onto them, resulting in a positive bias and giving them the benefit of the doubt and perceiving trustworthiness in them at least initially.

If employees identify strongly with their organization and see it as a big part of who they are, then they are more likely to assume that other employees are also trustworthy, like they think they are. The opposite is also true: if employees do not identify with their organization and feel that it lacks integrity or good decision-making, then they have lower trust in employees other than themselves. Thus, organizations may wish to make choices that demonstrate their integrity. They help employees to trust each other within the organization and see each other as members of the same family who have ability, benevolence and integrity.

The research suggests that organizations allocate resources differently, according to what they prioritize. Allocating resources according to:

  • equity reveals a prioritization of motivation or performance
  • equality reveals a prioritization of relationships
  • need reveals a prioritization of development and well-being.


Research has also begun examining resource allocation from the perspective of ‘fit’: employees are most satisfied when there is a fit between what they want and what they receive.

It is important to note that not all employees desire the same level of resources. Across three studies, 25% of employees felt over-trusted, 55% felt under-trusted, and 20% employees felt the level of trust they received was ‘just right’. In cases of a trust mismatch, employees perceived unfairness and felt that their needs had not been appropriately considered, which led to drops in task performance and willingness to help. Both insufficient trust and excess trust can be interpreted as a failure on the part of an unfair supervisor to consider the employee’s needs for agency and belonging—a violation of the need rule.

However, there can also be a match between level of trust and employee expectation. Low levels of trust can satisfy some employees who received the level of trust they wanted and did not experience constraints on their agency. This is similar to the case of some employees who experienced high levels of trust in them.

Practical Implications for Employers

  • Trusting employees is effortful and risky. Trust should be spent where it is wanted and will be most effective.
  • Change the equation. When trust is associated more with benefits (for example, better assignments, less monitoring) and less with burden, employees would want more trust.
  • Additional responsibilities should be accompanied by additional support.
  • Promote psychological safety to recognize that failure is an option.


Questions and Answers

Q: How might your research inform the way in which organizations return to office?

A:  The way that employees are able to show that they are worthy of trust is through higher levels of competence, benevolence and integrity.  Employees that have more face time, have more opportunities to demonstrate this.  Organizations should be thinking about how to ensure that every employee has the same level of trust building opportunities  For example, employees who have flexible work schedules and start at 8AM are seen as higher performers than their colleagues who start at 10AM.  Managers should be asking themselves, what are the performance metrics that I use and am I assuming that those employees are more competent because their work schedules align with mine.

Q:  We have some employees whose work allows them to be virtual and others who because of their roles have to be at work every day.  Given that we don’t want to stop alternative work arrangements, is there anyway to provide something to those that have to come in that would make them feel that they are trusted and valued?

A:  Employees are paying attention to the package of resources they receive.  Do they have opportunities for visibility, do they like to work on teams and with people they like, etc.  For those that can work remotely, seeing that opportunities to work remote or hybrid is a benefit which is part of their package.  For those that have to be at work, the question to cosider is how can you make it so that employees who have to be at work feel that their package is as valuable as that of remote workers?  For example, options like additional pay or other ways of making the package more equitable would be a helpful move.

Q:  As the pandemic has lingered, it seems as though trust has eroded and managers are less trusting that employees are actually being as productive as before.  And yet, burnout is increasing for employees and many are are leaving their current positions.  How has the pandemic impacted trust?

A:  At the beginning of the pandemic, there was an appreciation of how much was changing and employees worked remotely with little monitoring.  Managers had to trust employees.  Some organizations are now moving towards more monitoring because some employees.  I am not advocating this.  It may be that one way to approach this challenge is to intentionally hire employees that have high levels of competence, benevolence and integrity and to create a culture where people feel they are “in it together” and feel that they can’t let the organization or team mates down.

Q:  I am intrigued by this idea that you raised about agency and belonging being something that managers can distribute.  How can managers be more equitable?

A:  Being aware that employees appreciate and need that agency and belonging is important.  Less emphasis on employees being seen mainly as a resource that only contributes to the bottom line.  We conduct a syearly survey where we ask employees why they stay in a company.  Almost every year the responses include – I was provided autonomy and interesting work and colleagues value my contributions.

Q:  I am wondering about the difference between the unit analysis being task or role.  For me, agency is the power to select and execute scripts for action that fit me and the context.  The idea that a supervisor would be arbitrarily assigning tasks would make me feel that don’t fit my role would make me feel that my supervisor didn’t trust me.  If I am not assigned a task even though it fits within my role or my sypervisor told me that this is my role and now they assign me a task that doesn’t fit the role could lead me to feel that they don’t trust me or they don’t understand what my role is.

A:  Tasks do matter and also are sensitive to roles and tasks.   Employees are probably not looking at every task and evaluating whether how the manager distributes the task is representative of whether they trust them.  However, employees are assessing every day their level of trust from.  There are small ticks up and down in how much they feel they are trusted.  If there is a situation where the supervisor doesn’t give an employee an assignment, it will impact trust over time.   The need for agency and belonging fluctuate every day. If I feel that a supervisor trusts me, treats me fairly and respects me, I will be forgiving of one instance on any particular day.

Q:  I am interested in the trust heuristic.  Test out a potential implication of that.  Are you sayig that Based on your findings it is fair to conclude that if you are looking to increase trust in the organiation, you can get a trust effect within your employees by focusing on employer brand effect by increasing a sense of group and community even without changing a manager’s behavior?

A:  Biggest effect is going to come form the people who are closest to you.  The extent to which an employees trust the organization is often based on their communities and their experience with their manager.  On a global level, you can affect trust by focusing on the notion that we are all in this together.  If I have a bad experience with a colleague that impacts my trust propensity – my willingness to trust others throughout the day will be impacted.

Q:  So it sounds like trust propensity resides within an individual but there is also a radius of trust intensity meaning that the further you are from that individual, the less the trust propensity. Is that correct?

A:  Yes,  If you have an organization of 100,000 people and I can increase trust by 2%, you can have a big impact. With the radius of trust you can increase trust at the high level without having to focus on each individual.  At the organizational level, thinking of how you can increase these heuristics of trust in a global level is important.  We ran a study on new employees and how they got a quick sense as to whether an organization trusts them.  For those employees that started working in an environment that was aesthetically pleasing, it affected the level of trust that they had in the organization because they thought, that this pleasing aesthetic, beautiful environment demonstrated that the organization must care about their wellbeing.  It also led to employees having a higher level of benevolence and increased their trust increase. So even a little change in the workplace design, can impact trustworthiness.






Add a comment

Harvard Graduate School of Education