At first blush, trust and power seem unrelated, but they actually go hand in hand. When people grow more powerful, trust grows. But when their power declines, so does trust.
Those are the findings of research by Poets&Quants’ Professor of the Week, Sebastien Brion of IESE Business School, along with Robert B. Lount Jr. of the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University and IESE Ph.D. candidate Ruo Mo. Their paper, “Dynamic Influences of Power on Trust: Changes in Power Affect Trust in Others,” was published in the Journal of Trust Research.
The study suggests managers need to work particularly hard to maintain interpersonal trust in teams when a leading participant loses power.
TRUST PLAYS A CRITICAL ROLE IN RELATIONSHIPS
Trust plays a critical role in personal relationships between friends, spouses, family members, and co-workers. The classic social-science definition says trust includes “the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another.” (That vulnerability, of course, suggests the possibility that a breach of trust can lead to disappointment or betrayal.) Extensive research shows trust can foster personal well-being, commitment in relationships, job satisfaction, and better cooperation and information sharing among teams.
Much of the earlier research, however, focused on the relationship between absolute levels of trust and power; Brion and his colleagues say they’re breaking new ground by testing what happens when power relationships change—particularly when people involved either gain or lose power.
The study “begins to address the missing link between how changes in power affect the development of trust,” the authors write. “Not only are individuals sensitive to their absolute levels of power, but they also demonstrate acute sensitivity to the loss or gain of power across a number of psychological and behavioral outcomes.”
BEING OUT OF THE LOOP CONTRIBUTES TO INSECURITY AND PARANOIA
When individuals are, say, demoted or clearly cut out of the loop, they “experience an increase in social uncertainty that contributes to insecurity and paranoia in their interpersonal relationships,” Brion and his co-authors write. “As individuals lose power, they perceive others as less trustworthy and subsequently trust others less.”
That decline in trust for colleagues by the person who lost power can ripple through even close-knit teams and reduce the level of trust overall, the researchers find. Previous research showed that changes in hierarchy and power relations can “provoke stress-related physiological changes,” raising levels of the stress hormone cortisol and even increasing incidence of coronary artery disease.
“Taken together,” Brion and his colleagues write, “changes in power trigger affective, cognitive, and behavioral tendencies that may contribute to changes in trust in others…Individuals respond to the social uncertainty resulting from changes in power by becoming insecure, attending to negative information about others, and subsequently denigrating others.”
WORKERS PASSED OVER FOR PROMOTION MAY FEEL LESS POWERFUL
The researchers studied a sample of 267 MBAs and observed what happened when power relationships within teams changed.
”Workers who have been passed up for promotion while some of their teammates rise the ranks and acquire more power may subsequently feel less powerful while working with these former teammates,” Brion and his co-authors write. “In such cases managers should be attuned to the potential losses in trust that those individuals may exhibit,” and find other ways to promote the cohesion of organizations and teams, they conclude.
Brion, 40. is an Associate Professor of Managing People in Organizations at IESE Business School. His research centers on the psychological effects of power, focusing on the attainment, maintenance, and loss of power in group and organizational settings, as well as the impact of overconfidence on leadership.
At IESE, he teaches core classes on leadership and human resources management, and electives on power and influence for both full-time and executive MBAs. He earned his BA in psychology at Tufts University and his MS and Ph.D. in organizational behavior from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. He has taught at IESE since 2010. A dual citizen of the U.S. and Belgium, he is fluent in English, French, and Spanish.