Beleaguered executives well know that “it’s lonely at the top.” Despite craving, as all humans do, a select group of other people with whom they can let down their guards, top managers must also project an image of professionalism and strength. Yet as responsibilities and pressures rise, their need for a support network — typically, to provide candid feedback — only increases. It becomes vital that they be able turn to those they trust, receiving what they need from individuals who, they believe, will not later betray them.
Trust, which we define as the willingness to take risk or be vulnerable to another person when there is something of importance to be lost,1 plays a key role in the effective functioning of both society and individual organizations. In society, trust leads, for example, to civic engagement2 and the development of social capital.3 At the organizational level, trust reduces transaction costs, increases sociability and serves as the basis for cooperation.4
The leading question
When a top manager needs personal support, who does he or she turn to?
- Four different kinds of support may be requested, each having high or low informational complexity and high or low emotional demand.
- Executives require a support network of eight types of individuals (“profiles”) with whom to match the assistance being sought.
- These profiles reflect differing combinations of the three facets of trust — ability, integrity and benevolence (“he/she has my interests at heart”)
Access to a trusted informal network of support is paramount not only for leaders’ performances but also for their mental states.5 Having colleagues they can confide in improves their decision making, garners resources and reduces stress. According to Mayer et al.,6 the development of trust depends on the degree to which executives perceive the presence of three critical attributes — ability, benevolence and integrity — within their support networks, and their ability to match these qualities with the type of support they seek in any particular situation. Making the wrong match can be costly. Seeking strategic advice, for instance, from an expert number cruncher may produce a formulaic solution, and asking for emotional support from a brilliant but aloof strategist could be fruitless and unwise. Those executives who make the correct match may most effectively obtain the resources they need.
1. M. Deutsch, “Cooperation and Trust: Some Theoretical Notes,”