What is trust in the workplace? - Business Works
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What is trust in the workplace?

Nick Marsden, Assistant Chief Fire Officer, Dorset Fire and Rescue Service
Nick Marsden receiving his MSc with distinction from
Chairman of the Dorset Fire Authority, Councillor Rebecca Knox
Trust in the workplace is being hampered by a lack of understanding of what it actually means, according to new research.

Line managers who say they trust staff but dont, pose one of the biggest challenges to organisations hoping to flourish, according to the researcher Nick Marsden.

Nick is Assistant Chief Fire Officer with Dorset Fire and Rescue Service and he undertook the study for his Masters in Leadership and Management course at the University of Portsmouth. He won the University of Portsmouths Business School prize for best research, sponsored by the Institute of Leadership and Management, on the MSc in Leadership and Management course and his research has been published in Human Resource Bulletin: Research and Practice.

"It is easy to say we trust someone, but more difficult to enter into a trusting action which involves you becoming vulnerable or in some way at risk" said Nick. "Trust serves as the foundation for everything organisations do, but the difficulty is that the meaning of trust can sometimes be unclear, misunderstood or misused."

As a result of Nicks research, Dorset Fire and Rescue Service has approached the problem by defining their own meaning of trust which, in essence, is when a line manager is clear about the boundaries an employee needs to work within and the employee is able to talk comfortably with their manager about mistakes and weaknesses without fear that this will be used against them.

"The importance of clear boundaries should not be underestimated. There is a great story about a study of children who were told to play in an open field, but stayed very close to the adults. When the experiment was repeated, with a fence around the field, the children played into every corner."

"We cannot expect people to push personal boundaries if they are not clear where they are, in relation to those boundaries, in the first place", continued Nick.

The research concluded there is a complex matrix of trust up, down and across organisations regardless of their size, but that trust is most essential between individuals and their line manager.

"Trust is very much determined at a local level. Our natural tendency is to limit our own risk, which means that we may over-control. Sadly, many existing managers cannot see that they are doing this. They want to maintain hierarchical controls."

"With the current financial uncertainty many organisations are moving towards flatter, less hierarchical structures and it is essential to have a foundation of trust for empowerment to flourish."

Nick has long been interested in leadership and what motivates and inspires others to follow or go that extra mile. He said, "If we trust more, then people will reciprocate more. Discretional performance will be the outcome and a key part of success for future public services."

He was inspired to do the research when issues of trust between the senior team and middle managers were identified. Interestingly, when challenged, everyone in the group had a different interpretation of what trust meant.

His tutor, David Hall, said, "Nicks research was inspired by what he saw and questioned in his own workplace. It was innovative and extremely insightful, which has allowed Nick and his management team to build on this in the workplace. It was an excellent piece of research."

For more information, please visit: University of Portsmouth Business School

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