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Faculty Findings
The Business of Trust

Ability—Possessing the skills to get the job done.
Benevolence—Caring about the other person.
Integrity—Adhering firmly to a code of moral or ethical values.

Does trust among employees translate into financial performance? Impact operations and cash flow? Drive the bottom line?

You bet, says Associate Professor of Management James Davis. He and research colleagues have extensively studied trust and created instruments for measuring it in organizations. He said executives who are worthy of trust and understand its pivotal role in a company have a competitive edge.

“It should be as important as the CEO’s understanding of the markets,” Davis said. “This is more than just icing on the cake, it is necessary. It is cake.”

A recent study by Davis shows that a restaurant chain experiencing 100 percent annual turnover in some of its stores had lower turnover in places “where trust was high for the general manager.” Davis said, “We checked accounting returns, and it was a direct correlation between the level of trust, turnover, and total performance.”

For years, trust in an organization was considered one of those “soft” intangibles that were nice to have—but not essential—touted in colorful marketing brochures and teambuilding exercises. No more.

“Up until this research, there’s been no systematic approach looking at trustworthiness, and trust, and executives’ ability to manage trust,” said Davis, who advises corporate boards of directors on hiring and firing decisions. “It directly affects the bottom line.”

Davis’ seminal work entitled “An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust,” which appeared in the Academy of Management Review in 1995, set the standard for trust research in organizations and discussions in academia and industry.

“The world was ready for it so it took off,” Davis said. “And now, everybody builds on that foundation.”The Conflict Management Division of the Academy of Management Review named the study, which has been cited in more than 300 publications worldwide, as the most influential article published in the late 1990’s.

In it, Davis and colleagues identified three components of trust—ability, benevolence and integrity—and created scales for measuring these qualities in individuals and in organizations. Are you trusted? Whom should you trust—as an employee, a business partner, a supplier?

Ability is defined as possessing the skills to get the job done. Benevolence is defined as caring about the other person. And integrity is defined as adhering firmly to a code of moral or ethical values. Individuals and organizations that score high on all of these are trusted by their peers and in the marketplace.

If an individual scores high on one or two—ability, benevolence, integrity—and low on the other(s), then risk increases. The other party in the interaction may or may not trust, and, therefore, may or may not transact.

“This model has also been used in strategic alliances,” Davis said. “Does this company trust this company? If trust is there, you don’t have to go back to the legalistic remedies...(which) are much more is just a much more powerful mechanism for work.”

Davis’ research has included studying companies in the Midwest and Southeast in which supervisors were eliminated and teams worked on their own, without monitoring and control.

“They have trust within the company,” Davis said. “And so, you don’t have that layer of management. So there’s cost savings, there’s performance increases.”

Davis, who also has a graduate degree in psychology, teaches corporate strategy. He teaches students to execute a business plan, and he discusses methods for revealing and improving their ability, benevolence and integrity.

“Showing that you have the ability makes all the difference in the world,” Davis said. “It’s like when you have a winning football coach, you can get the team to follow that guy to the moon.”

He said that benevolence and integrity are important, too. Any attempt to increase one’s benevolence or integrity must be sincere and bone-deep. It cannot be an act, a “management technique.”

“As a manager, I can affect my employee’s perceptions of my benevolence towards them—is that management or is that manipulation?” Davis asked. “It’s got to be lasting and sincere to work.”

Do employees know the difference?

“Oh, yes. I would say definitely, definitely in the long run,” Davis said. “If it’s an insincere boss, it (modeling false benevolence and integrity) will actually damage trust. It will make those perceptions even worse. And so it has to be sincere.”

Davis is currently using his trust instruments to research organizations with “social capital.” He describes “social capital” as employees’ willingness to pull together, “if somebody succeeds, there is general joy; if somebody is struggling, people jump in.” These organizations are greater than the sum of their parts, and they are the opposite of places where “I am punching the clock and I am outta here.”

Where there is trust and communication, there is social capital.

Davis said that social capital—similar to brand equity—can affect the valuation of a company. And he foresees measuring a company’s social capital before deciding whether to do an acquisition, merger or strategic alliance, and measuring a management team’s social capital before investing venture capital.

Social capital requires trust at the highest levels.

“A leader is absolutely vital to this process,” Davis said. “Absolutely critical. You get the right leader, it’s amazing.”

Professor James Davis has done extensive research on the topic of trust and the components that comprise this virtue. Davis co-authored “An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust,” which appeared in the Academy of Management Review, with Robert C. Mayer and F. David Schoorman.

—Rachel Reynolds is the Director of Feature Writing at Mendoza College of Business and managing editor of Notre Dame Business.



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