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Rethinking disengagement

It's a common suspicion that employee distrust damages businesses, now there is empirical proof of the effects


HRM policies and practices are important in shaping the level and form of psychological attachment employees have to their employer. There are three types of interrelated attachment: organisational commitment (OC), organisational trust (OT) and organisational identification (OI). Evidence from our organisational trust audits shows clear discrepancies between the level of attachment of those at the top and those further down. We find a disconnect with the emergence of lower OT, and more critically the emergence of a small but important negative group who actively distrust the organisation and a wider range of its actors.

What’s new

Since the onset of the financial crisis all the available trust indicators show there has been an ongoing decline in trust in companies. This has been mirrored by an ongoing decline in trust in politicians. Governments have responded by forcing companies to increase the formalisation of their internal control systems, especially tightening evaluation and audit practices. Yet empirical evidence on whether, how and what kind of control systems affect trust in companies has until recently been very limited.

Our research has found external regulation to force change does little to promote trust (Nienaber, Hofeditz et al. 2014), instead it is internal processes – notably HRM policies and their consistent implementation – that appear among the most significant (e.g. Searle, Weibel et al. 2011; Searle and Skinner 2011; Weibel, Den Hartog et al. 2016). Our work focusing on the relationship between emotions and thinking has found critical differences between employees who trust and those who distrust. In the wake of Brexit-related media attention on anger and its aftermath, we outline how HR policies may be a critical source of distrust that can have ramifications far beyond company walls.

Our studies found both the choice of policies and the adherence to their consistent implementation sends important clues and signals about the trustworthiness of an employer (Searle, Den Hartog et al. 2011; Weibel, Den Hartog et al. 2016). Results from three empirical studies confirmed the balanced use of control systems

is positively related to strong employee trust, while badly or inconsistently implemented control systems and ‘over-control’ can have the opposite effect (Weibel et al, 2016). Further, we find employees are very attentive to inconsistencies shown to different stakeholder groups, with a resultant decline in OT.

In a further CIPD-supported study we see each employee group has different areas of concern, and the emergence of a small but distinct distrust group with very different thinking.

Key findings

In our study attention wasn’t focused on the more obvious HR input controls of selection, training and socialisation mechanisms, but three control pillars: (1) output controls; (2) process controls, which focuses on clear, well-defined standards; and (3) normative controls, which involves the monitoring of adherence to standards and sanctioning of those who deviate. These three controls were shown to contribute to the company’s reliability and integrity. They promoted common normative principles and shared values whereby employees that deviate repeatedly from such norms would be held accountable.

In our study of vulnerability we found seven different groups. They included a large group who remained connected and positive with a strong sense of their work identity (Trusters), and a small positive group but with a new emotion – wariness about changes occurring around them (Watchful followers). Three groups had growing levels of concern, so wariness and frustration. One group’s concerns focused on the top of the organisation (Change at the top), another’s were about other more remote employees (Concerned loyalists), while the final group was attentive to closer leaders and especially job role changes (Identity shifters). There were two disconnected groups: one selecting very limited emotions (Apathetics), but whose thinking reflects a strong ongoing disengagement, and a second that is unique among the clusters in selecting only negative emotions, particularly anger and distrust (Angry distrusters). These angry distrusters were markedly different in their thinking; it shows a very striking shift into distrust, with reducing means to reconnect them.

From research to reality

Those who trust their employer are more committed, stay longer, work harder and more co-operatively, share knowledge, and are more effective at problem solving (e.g., Whitener 2001, Coyle-Shapiro, Morrow et al. 2002; Tremblay, Cloutier et al. 2010; Fulmer and Gelfand 2012).

By contrast, distrust is related to a lack of co-operation (Cho 2006), the avoidance of interaction (Bies and Tripp 1996), disbelief (Kramer 1994), paranoia (Kramer 2006), an unwillingness to share information and to distort it. (Bromiley and Cummings 1995). Worse, distrust can create self-reinforcing cycles that are hard to intervene in and alter (Bijlsma-Frankema, Sitkin et al. forthcoming) (Chambers and Melnyk 2006, Tomlinson and Lewicki 2006, Fiol, Pratt et al. 2009). Thus distrust is a whole different world to manage and to try and return from.

We have identified how trust can be developed and maintained throughout the employee life cycle (Searle and Skinner 2011). Our prior CIPD-sponsored work found that trust, managed well, can rise even when a company is downsizing (Hope-Hailey, Searle et al. 2012). Yet the experience for many is one of disconnect, with inconsistencies in how they and their colleagues or other stakeholders are treated. But organisations often pay little attention to managing the emotions and reactions of their staff following changes to HR policies, such as pensions or transformation programmes.

Human beings are predisposed to recall our negative experiences far more readily than positive. The increasing uncertainty we face in modern life erodes further our capacity to trust. Important factors are the stagnation of most workers’ incomes, cuts to a range of employment-related welfare benefits, and rises in cost of living. Scandals from BHS to Sports Direct have made employees increasingly cynical about the security of their employment contract; and cynicism erodes trust.

Emergent challenges

Several trust challenges loom; not just Brexit, but also changes such as April’s mandatory gender pay gap reporting.

While transparency promotes trust, where inequity emerges from that it erodes it. Reward discrepancies between those at the top and others, but also between genders, will create questions. Our work shows that where people start to feel frustrated and their positive emotions are replaced by negative ones, trust is likely to be adversely affected – or worse replaced by distrust.

The Dutch have an expression: ‘trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback’. I would add: transforming trust to distrust can have a wide-ranging, ongoing and unanticipated set of consequences that create challenges for a far wider range of people. Therefore the sagest advice for organisations is to try as hard as possible to avoid creating distrust.

Rosalind Searle is professor of organisational behaviour and psychology at Coventry University. Deanne Den Hartog is professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Amsterdam's business school. Ann-Marie Nienaber is an associate professor/reader in business management at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations. Antoinette Weibel is professor of human resources management at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.