Paradoxes of Engagement: First Trust, Then Trustworthiness

Managers are having a hard time trusting remote workers. Why?

Research is showing that — despite the fact that many workers report they want to continue to work away from the office post-pandemic — managers are having a hard time with it.

I’ve read work from two groups in the past week, and I want to summarize their somewhat divergent views.

In WFH Is Corroding Our Trust in Each Other, Mark Mortensen and Heidi K. Gardner report on research they’ve conducted with dozens of companies grappling with the new realities of distributed workforces, and they characterize the current state as a crisis of trust. But in their framing, trust needs to be reciprocal, and not just looking at whether managers trust their reports.

First, while companies have dabbled with remote work, it’s now widespread:

Companies previously allowed select employees to work from home, either because those specific employees were highly trusted or because their work allowed managers to measure their output and hold them accountable. Now everyone is at home, regardless of past performance level or job.

Second, the crisis meant that companies were forced into immediate remote work because of stay-at-home mandates, often without training, equipment, or motivation. So many are involuntarily working at home, or are compromised by kids and other family members being there too.


Employees’ WFH challenges (including technology failures, shifting work norms, and conflicts between work and home responsibilities) make it more likely that they’ll fail to deliver on perceived obligations, leading to a further erosion of trust.

The researchers make clear that it is inherent patterns and structures in how we design work and organizations that are causing these problems, and companies will have to ‘build a sustainable model of trust’ that works in this new way of things.

The researchers argue that the loss of reinforcing information flow that comes from working remotely degrades trust [emphasis mine]:

Predictability is the foundation of trust. We’re willing to be vulnerable — to expose ourselves to potential risk — when we have reason to believe that someone will not take advantage of us or disappoint us. This comes only when we think we can anticipate how others will behave. One of us, Heidi K. Gardner, researched more than 3,000 senior knowledge workers and identified two distinct kinds of trust that are essential for people to work together effectively. First, they need to believe that others will deliver and that the work will be high quality (competence trust). Second, they need to believe that others have good intentions and high integrity (interpersonal trust). To trust colleagues in both of these ways, people need clear and easily discernible signals about them — what they’re doing (actions), why they’re doing it (motivations), and whether they’ll continue to do it (reliability).

They state that not seeing the side effects of hard work — the pizza boxes left behind from an all-night work session, and so on — makes it harder to maintain trust, organically, and virtual work tends to amplify misunderstanding so that ‘trust infractions’ break trust bonds.

Predictability is the foundation of trust. We’re willing to be vulnerable — to expose ourselves to potential risk — when we have reason to believe that someone will not take advantage of us or disappoint us. This comes only when we think we can anticipate how others will behave.

What should be done?

The researchers strongly recommend against increased monitoring. Why?

It doesn’t work. One, you can monitor everything; two, people will game the system to meet the implicit measurements involved; and three, it only makes the trust problem worse, because there is no faster way to demonstrate lack of trust than surveillance.

One survey found that 49% of employees subject to stringent monitoring reported severe anxiety, compared to only 7% of those subject to low levels of monitoring. Monitoring can also increase burnout and employee dissatisfaction and undermine firm morale.

Here’s what management should do:

Recognize and leverage reciprocal trust — There is evidence that ‘the propensity to trust others leads the others toward positive business behaviors, like higher risk taking, citizenship behavior, and task performance, and lower counterproductive behaviors’. So, our paradox of engagement: first trust, then trustworthiness. As the researchers put it,

the more you trust someone and act accordingly, the more likely they are to trust you in return. Importantly, these do not operate independently. This means that in order to increase trust within your network, you need to shift your focus to signaling your own trustworthiness.

Build a trust staircase — Build that reciprocal trust a step at a time.

Engage in status-quo communication — Remind each other what can be relied on even when everything is in a state of flux.

Assume one-size-fits-none trusting — People vary widely in their receptiveness to trust, varying from those that trust others as the default to those that start distrusting. First, do not assume others’ trust orientation is the same as yours. And keep foremost in your thinking that others are operating from their trust footing, and may need more evidence instead of suspending their doubts.

Clearly, Mortensen and Gardner have laid out a comprehensive way to think about and act upon the issues of trust in a minimum office economy.

Sharon K. Parker, Caroline Knight, and Anita Keller are more focused on manager’s issues, In Remote Managers Are Having Trust Issues, they focus on the disruption of Covid-19 and the challenges it has created for managers. Their starting point:

Research shows that managers who cannot “see” their direct reports sometimes struggle to trust that their employees are indeed working. When such doubts creep in, managers can start to develop an unreasonable expectation that those team members be available at all times, ultimately disrupting their work-home balance and causing more job stress.

The researchers surveyed more than 1200 people in 24 different countries, asking 92 questions. Their findings:

  • ‘About 40% of the 215 supervisors and managers in our study expressed low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely.’

  • ‘Similar numbers reported lacking the confidence to influence remote workers to do their job well, and coordinate a team of remote workers effectively.’

  • ‘Thirty-eight percent of managers agreed that remote workers usually perform worse than those who work in an office, with 22% being unsure.’

  • ‘Many managers were also dubious about whether remote workers can remain motivated over time, with 41%  agreeing with the statement “I am skeptical as to whether remote workers can stay motivated in the long term” and a further 17%  being unsure.’

The drivers of these beliefs?

  • ‘Controlling for a range of other factors, men were more likely to have negative attitudes to remote working, and to mistrust their own employees’ competence. For example, whereas 15% of female managers reported that they lacked “confidence in their employees’ work skills in the past week,” for male managers, 36% percent had little trust in their employees’ skills.’

[Once again — I have to say it — this demonstrates why women are better managers, in general.]

  • ‘53% of managers from non-managerial/non-professional roles agreed that “the performance of remote workers is usually lower than those of people who work in an office/work setting” compared to 24% of those in managerial/professional roles.’ Non-managerial/non-professional managers are perhaps less skilled at management, generally.

  • ‘Twenty-five percent of managers under 30 years of age did not feel they could coordinate a team of remote workers effectively, whereas only 12% of managers over 30 years of age had this lack of self-confidence.” The younger the manager, the less confidence.

  • ‘For those managers who reported that their organization provides little support for flexible working, the level of self-efficacy for managing remote workers was lower.’ Companies that want it to work — and not just go away in the post-pandemic future — train managers to deal with it.

What about the non-managers in the survey?

  • People report close monitoring. ‘Twenty-one percent agreed (with 24% being unsure) their supervisor constantly evaluated their work. Eleven percent agreed (with 21% being unsure) that their supervisor/manager “keeps very close tabs on me by frequent checking.”’

  • ‘Thirty-four percent agreed that their supervisors “expressed a lack of confidence in their work skills.” Similar numbers reported that their supervisor doubted their ability to do the work, and felt that the supervisor questioned whether they had the knowledge required.’ This may predate the pandemic, however.

  • An even larger number of workers reported feeling that they needed to be constantly available, such as being expected to respond to electronic/telephone messages immediately, be available at all times, and be responsive after work hours.’ A life of total work.

No surprise, these conditions are leading to greater stress and anxiety.

The authors have a collection of suggestions, which I will restructure to only a few, because some are duplicative, and actually don’t treat the idea of trust-building, per see, but mostly on countering falsehoods about remote work through training:

  • Start with greater autonomy — the researchers note that ‘Existing research on teleworking shows that it can be more productive than office working, but the benefits arise largely because of the greater autonomy afforded to remote workers. If autonomy is low and micromanagement high because of managerial mistrust, benefits of remote work are unlikely to arise.’ This requires training managers to delegate, and to continue to communicate with highly autonomous workers, but to resist monitoring.

  • Manage by results — Outcome-based work goes in lockstep with greater autonomy, so it’s critical to agree on outcomes and how to measure them.

  • Comprehensive support ‘Organizations need to move beyond rhetoric about supporting flexible working and actually enact this support by, for example, ensuring workers have the equipment needed, providing resources to support staff wellbeing, allowing extra leave for workers if needed, and giving training to support flexible working.”


Mortensen and Gardner do a great job of characterizing how reciprocal trust works (or doesn’t), and how to achieve it, while Parker, Knight, and Keller have done the hard work of slicing survey results to understand which managers do and do not trust their remote workers, and, in particular, the costs of failing to build that trust.

While the two groups come at this from different starting points, the takeaways are pretty stark:

  • Remote work is exacerbating inherent trust issues built into the relationship of manager and managed. Companies should remove all impediments to successful remote work: equipment, bandwidth, leave, training, and management practices, as a starting point.

  • Surveillance and overtly intrusive monitoring are deeply negative, increasing anxiety and degrading the sense of trust.

  • The ‘trick’ is to increase reciprocal trust between the two sides of that relationship through the paradox of engagement: start by trusting, and then trustworthiness will follow, not the other way around. And the ‘magic’ is that both sides have to think about their own behaviors and how they influence the other’s reciprocal trust. A step-by-step approach to rebuilding trust — or building it in the first place — is likely to be necessary.

  • Managers need to learn how to create greater degrees of autonomy for remote workers, and all involved need to keep up communications to send signals of commitment and continue to reinforce trust bonds.

Obviously, companies are not doing the greatest job in building cultures that engender reciprocal trust in the current crisis, and they probably were doing a so-so job beforehand, as well.


Read all the Paradoxes of Engagement series: