What makes workers feel engaged? The quest to answer this riddle is becoming increasingly important for organizations, because employee engagement is linked to work performance: Engaged employees tend to be more productive. Moreover, workplace engagement is an important determinant for the level of commitment and loyalty that employees show toward their respective organizations. Executives must understand what motivates employees to excel in their jobs to reduce the risk of “brain drain” and, ultimately, to create sustainable organizational success.
One of the crucial prerequisites for workforce well-being is that employees feel they can trust their line managers. Trust in decision-making authorities fundamentally shapes employees’ expectations about how they will be treated in the future — in terms of both what the authorities are likely to do and how they will execute their decisions. The more trust employees have in their managers, the more likely the employees are to expect organizational outcomes to be favorable and the more likely they are to expect that the procedures used by authorities to plan and implement decisions will be fair.
However, at least one study found that for many workers, interacting with their line manager is the least pleasant moment of the day. This is problematic, because a prominent research finding in the domain of social psychology suggests that people tend to perceive and respond to decisions in ways that are consistent with their prior expectations. That finding suggests that employees who expect their line managers to be untrustworthy are more likely to be disloyal toward the organization and exhibit lower levels of motivation, which may ultimately result in suboptimal work performance. Moreover, the relationship between workers’ trust in decision-making authorities and their commitment toward the organization is a self-perpetuating one: According to several studies, untrusting employees who show a low level of commitment are likely to be treated less positively by their superiors, which in turn discourages the employees from being more committed. In other words, employees who show low commitment as a result of not trusting management are often caught in a vicious cycle.
Our research offers insights into the specific types of workplace behaviors that may give rise to such cycles as well as behaviors that can allow managers to exit them.