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Why don't I trust you now? An attributional approach to erosion of trust

A.R. Elangovan (Faculty of Business, University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada)
Werner Auer‐Rizzi (Institut für Internationale Managementstudien, Johannes Kepler Universität, Linz/Auhof, Austria)
Erna Szabo (Institut für Internationale Managementstudien, Johannes Kepler Universität, Linz/Auhof, Austria)

Journal of Managerial Psychology

ISSN: 0268-3946

Article publication date: 23 January 2007

Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to examine the effects of the trustor's responsibility‐attributions for a trust violation and the trustee's frequency of prior violations on the subsequent erosion of trust in the relationship.

Design/methodology/approach

Data were collected from 120 middle‐senior level managers using a two‐part scenario‐based experimental design to test the impact of attributions and frequency of violations. Respondents' levels of trust and distrust were measured pre‐ and post‐violation as well as forgiving and a range of demographic variables.

Findings

Results showed that trust eroded (and distrust increased) more when trustors perceived the trustees as not wanting to fulfill the trust‐expectations than when they could not do so. Further, trustors were willing to tolerate a maximum of two violations before trust in the relationship eroded significantly. The results also showed that trustors who were relatively more forgiving were less likely to lose trust in the trustee after a violation, as were younger and less experienced individuals.

Research limitations/implications

Although scenario‐based experiments assess the cognitive states of the respondents rather than actual behaviors, they serve as a valuable first step. By highlighting the two‐step sequence that may underlie the trust erosion process and emphasizing the importance of using an attributional perspective, the paper invites future research on a range of factors such as patterns of violation, degrees of damage, etc. Collectively, they ought to lead to an integrated model of trust erosion.

Practical implications

For practicing managers, the results underscore the importance of maintaining trust by constantly meeting expectations. While they may be forgiven for one‐time mistakes in maintaining trust, they cannot be repeated without severely damaging the trust in the relationship. Also, employees need to be convinced that the erring manager or colleague has done his/her very best to prevent the violation.

Originality/value

This paper addresses an under‐investigated facet of trust research in organizations – erosion of trust – which is especially crucial in light of the growing awareness that most organizational relationships actually start off with high levels of trust rather than low trust. Thus, this study offers insights into maintaining (as opposed to building) trust.

Keywords

Citation

Elangovan, A.R., Auer‐Rizzi, W. and Szabo, E. (2007), "Why don't I trust you now? An attributional approach to erosion of trust", Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 4-24. https://doi.org/10.1108/02683940710721910

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited