A Commitment to Trust: Consultant Recounts a Storied History of the Evolution of Workplace Trust Research

By Wilmot, Richard E. | Communication World, March-April 2007 | Go to article overview

A Commitment to Trust: Consultant Recounts a Storied History of the Evolution of Workplace Trust Research


Wilmot, Richard E., Communication World


Not long ago, a colleague sent me a two-sentence e-mail with this quote--"'Organizational trust is important because it is linked to the level of employee performance'--Gilbert & Tang, 1998; Heffes, 1999"--and a note saying, "Dick, they are on to you ... "

The message brought to mind a moment 25 years ago, in March 1982, when my boss, a General Motors vice president, finally gave me the go-ahead to begin employee trust research. By then, I already had been at GM for 26 years as an HR director in three 3,500-employee plants. I had served as a corporate public relations staff regional manager in New York and Ohio. In Chevrolet's 100,000-employee division, I had been director of employee relations and internal communication. Then, in 1982, I was appointed general director of external and employee communication for a different 100,000-employee division, with plants in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. All those years, and through all of those varied responsibilities, I never abandoned my belief in the value of trust at work.

In 1980, I experienced two confidence-building interventions. The first involved renowned social scientist Rensis Likert, Ph.D. Ten years earlier, he had completed a consulting engagement with two GM assembly plants in a large U.S. metropolitan area. He found that one plant manager had developed positive relationships with his workforce, including the union leadership. Likert arranged to have him moved across town to manage the sister plant where employees openly said that they had "no use for GM management." Based on my passion for workplace trust, GM sent me to meet Likert. He encouraged my trust research, but warned me that GM executives would never be receptive to having their employees taken off the job to define it.

A second fortunate event occurred while I was still at Chevrolet headquarters. William Ouchi, Ph.D., co-chair of the management program at the University of California, Los Angeles, had been engaged by our chief manufacturing executive to consult with the executive and his 20 plant managers. Ouchi's book Theory Z: How American Management Can Meet the Japanese Challenge (Addison-Wesley, 1981) begins, "The secret to successful manufacturing is trust." His consultant role was to convince the chief and all of his executives that employee trust had real bottom-line value.

Plant managers who had permitted me and my colleague Peg Holmes, ABC, to interview several of their employees in 1978 decided to share that employee data with the group at Chevrolet. Ouchi was sufficiently impressed to request that I be invited to attend all the remaining sessions, much to the chagrin of the chief. In side conversations with Ouchi, he asked me why I was not using more Chevrolet plants as research laboratories. On learning that my boss was opposed to it, he advised me to transfer elsewhere in GM to do much-needed trust research. So I decided to move on.

In 1982, I finally found a boss who would let me ask some actual trust experts--the thousands of salaried and hourly-wage employees who made up our headquarters group--how they felt about it. My vice president reasoned that my experience was extremely unusual: I'd already done substantial employee interviewing in Chevrolet plants and negotiated with unions while in HR. He decided that I would be the GM pioneer in this research, along with my HR colleague of 20 years.

My colleague was Howard C. Carlson, Ph.D., arguably the best U.S. organizational development executive and consultant, whose career internal clients were the very top executives of GM. He provided credence and helpers. Some of his GM cohorts volunteered to assist with the factor analysis on their own time. But there was nothing in that analysis about trust at work. I wanted specific, personal definitions from employees. He recommended adding critical incidents. Because of the complete support of our vice president, the one-hour sessions were offered to all headquarters volunteers. …

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