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May 18, 2011 | Volume 5 | Number 5
May 18, 2011
By Matthew J. Grawitch & Patrick Maloney
The Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program advocates the implementation of practices across five different domains: employee involvement, work-life balance, employee growth and development, health and safety and employee recognition (Grawitch, Gottschalk, & Munz, 2006; Grawitch, Trares, & Kohler, 2007).
The practices that develop in these domains are critical to ensuring improvements in organizational performance and employee well-being. However, these practice domains are situated within the organizational context.
Though context can refer to numerous characteristics (e.g., structure, industry, strategy), perhaps the single most important element of that context is the organization’s culture. Culture plays two very important roles in the creation and maintenance of a psychologically healthy workplace.
Of importance here is the first role that culture plays in creating a psychologically healthy workplace. There are various formal definitions of organizational culture, but most of them involve an explicit emphasis on the norms, values and behaviors that a culture espouses and models (Katz & Kahn, 1978; Schein, 1990).
There are several elements of culture that can influence the development of a psychologically healthy workplace. Some authors have begun discussing the importance of creating a ‘culture of health’ or a ‘culture of flexibility’ (Clark, 2001; Tetrick & Quick, 2003). We are not trying to minimize the importance of cultural elements that promote flexibility or health, but there is a deeper and more central element that drives the development of a psychologically healthy workplace: trust. Trust is the critical element on which a positive culture must be built.
McKnight and Chervany (1996) actually identified numerous conceptualizations of trust, which largely include some affective elements (feelings related to trust) and cognitive elements (beliefs about who is to be trusted and why). Trust is an important element of social influence in everyday life and in organizations specifically. For example, we are more likely to take something “at face value” if we trust the person who is conveying the information. In addition, Misztal (1996) indicates that trust makes life predictable, creates a sense of community and improves our ability to work together. When employees are capable of forming trusting relationships with their peers, they perform their jobs better and they are less likely to experience negative workplace outcomes such as burnout (Simmons et al., 2009).
A lack of trust in an organization creates a heightened sense of insecurity and fear that one might be exploited by their coworkers or organization (Jones & George, 2001). This heightened sense of insecurity can increase the stress and strain experienced by employees (Griffin & Clarke, 2011). To say it another way, if workers lack trust in their supervisor, then those workers may experience higher levels of general anxiety as a part of work life, which could become hugely detrimental during periods of large-scale uncertainty (like what we are currently experiencing economically). People can differ in their trust of senior leaders, supervisors and co-workers. Mistrust of any kind can result in decreased performance and higher levels of stress and it can keep employees from becoming optimally engaged in their work. So, trust is a big issue that needs to be addressed.
Trust is one of those things that takes time to develop, but can be eroded very quickly. If there is a culture of mistrust that exists within an organization, then it will permeate any attempts to create a psychologically healthy workplace. A widespread culture of mistrust usually stems from lack of trust in senior leaders, but anyone with influence over others (even interdependent co-workers fall into this group) can behave in ways that erode trust.
There are innumerable ways in which trusting relationships can dissolve. A lack of trust can develop when we:
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it does highlight several behaviors that can erode a culture of trust.
There is no easy fix for a culture of mistrust. Any long-lasting culture change can take an extraordinary amount of time and effort. In fact, Schein (2004) has indicated that such a change can require years of work to permanently alter an organization’s culture. Sub-cultures within an organization can take less time and effort to change (for example, a department’s culture may only take months to change rather than years), but any change agent should be prepared to invest significant time and energy into the culture change process.
Obviously, the specific tactics that will be required to correct a culture of mistrust largely depends on the source of that mistrust. For example, if a culture of mistrust has evolved because of unethical managers, then removing those managers and replacing them with ethical leaders may be an appropriate tactic.
In our experience, most trust issues that exist within an organization stem from one of three underlying issues:
In the case of unethical decision making, organizations need to evaluate the damage that has been caused and act accordingly. While small breaches in ethical behavior may be easily forgiven in situations where strong trusting relationships exist, leaders who develop a pattern of poor ethical decision making or egregiously violate the ethics or values of the organization must be removed. This can be especially powerful when replacing senior leaders. However, replacing them with an insider (e.g., someone that employees associate with the existing culture of unethical behavior) will only continue the culture of mistrust. Therefore, it may make more sense to replace such a leader with someone from outside of that particular culture. In the case of the CEO, it might mean looking outside of the organization for a replacement. In the case of a department manager, it might mean looking outside of that particular department.
Organizations may also need to consider the processes they use to make decisions. In the research literature, the concept of justice has been consistently examined as a key element of culture and trust (Tyler, 2005). Justice relates to employee perceptions that (1) rewards are distributed equitably (distributive justice), (2) decisions are made in a fair way (procedural justice), and (3) people receive consistent and fair treatment (interactional justice). If employees perceive inequity in any of these three areas, it will decrease their perceptions of justice in the workplace, which will inevitably lead to greater levels of mistrust. Hence, organizations with issues related justice may need to review the processes they have in place for making important decisions.
Finally, when considering the issue of ineffective communication techniques, an organization should emphasize the use of open, honest and continuous communication with employees. As emphasized by Grawitch et al. (2006), this likely means focusing on improving both top-down (i.e., communication starting at the top) and bottom-up (i.e., communication working its way up the hierarchy) processes. Poor communication processes can also have negative consequences on employee perceptions of justice. That is, an organization may have fair, systematic policies and procedures in place but do a poor job of communicating those policies and procedures. For example, there may be systematic, fair processes in place for determining raises and bonuses, but if the organization does a poor job of explaining those processes to employees, it may breed increased perceptions of injustice.
Trust can be hard to earn, easy to lose and, once lost, even more difficult to regain. Establishing a culture of trust can help to buffer against minor infractions from specific members of the organization. It helps to ensure that employees trust each other and the organization. When employees do not trust their subordinates, peers, supervisors or organization, they are more susceptible to workplace stress and a host of other negative outcomes. To make matters worse, employee distrust is a roadblock to employee engagement, meaning that employees will be less likely to care about the organization’s welfare or believe that the organization has their best interest in mind. For these reasons (and many more) employee trust is the foundation of a psychologically healthy workplace.
Clark, S. C. (2001). Work cultures and work/family balance. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 58, 348-365.
Grawitch, M. J., Gottschalk, M., & Munz, D. C. (2006). The path to a healthy workplace: A critical review linking healthy workplace practices, employee well-being, and organizational improvements. Consulting Psychology Journal, 58, 129–147.
Grawitch, M. J., Trares, S., & Kohler, J. M. (2007). Healthy workplace practices and employee outcomes. International Journal of Stress Management, 14, 275-293.
Jones, G. R., & George, J. M. (1998). The experience and evolution of trust: Implications for cooperation and teamwork. Academy of Management Review, 23, 531-546.
Katz, D., & Kahn, R. L. (1978). The social psychology of organizations (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.
McKnight, D. H., & Chervany, N. L. (1996). The meanings of trust. Retrieved May 12, 2011, from http://www.misrc.umn.edu/wpaper/wp96-04.htm.
Misztal, B. A. (1996). Trust in modern societies. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
Schein, E. H. (1990). Organizational culture. American Psychologist, 45, 109-119.
Schein, E. H. (2004). Organizational culture and leadership (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Simmons, B. L., J. Gooty, et al. (2009). Secure attachment: Implications for hope, trust, burnout, and performance. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30, 233-247.
Tetrick, L. E., & Quick, J. C. (2011). Overview of Occupational Health Psychology. In L. E. Tetrick & J. C. Quick (Eds.), Handbook of occupational health psychology (pp. 3-20). Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Tyler, T. R. (2005). Process-based leadership: How do leaders lead? In D. M. Messick & R. M. Kramer (Eds.), The psychology of leadership: New perspectives and research (pp. 163-190). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
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