Topic: Distrust

Author(s), Title and Publication

Keyton, J., & Smith, F. L. (2009). Distrust in Leaders: Dimensions, Patterns, and Emotional Intensity. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 16(1), 6-18.


This study examined distrust as either a violation of trust (trust initially exists, and distrust occurs when something damages established trust) or the opposite of trust (trust and distrust are separate but linked dimensions, and distrust can initially exist). The intensity of emotion associated with distrust was also examined.

Employees (580 people) at a Fortune 500 manufacturer answered an open-ended question about their perceptions of communication with leaders in their facility. Only narratives that included the words trust or distrust were coded. The data screening process resulted in 156 narratives about distrust, indicating that more than 25 percent of respondents expressed distrust in their leaders. The 156 narratives were coded with two distrust conceptualizations: 1) distrust is the opposite of trust (incompetence, lacks integrity, inconsistency, disloyal, and closed), and 2) distrust is an action that violates trust (rule violation, honor violation, abusive authority, and public criticism). The narratives were also coded for target of distrust and language intensity as an index of emotionality.

Results revealed that the most frequently reported action that violated employees’ trust of their leaders was an honor violation (e.g., shirking job responsibilities). The feature of leaders’ communication that employees distrusted most often was lack of openness, followed by disloyalty, inconsistency, incompetence, and dishonesty. Earlier studies demonstrated that people thought competence was most important to the establishment of trust, followed by integrity, consistency, loyalty, and openness. The different order of features of trust and distrust in this study suggested they have different qualities rather than being polar anchors of a continuum. This study also found that of the four targets of distrust (i.e., corporate management, facility management, specialty area management, and work area supervisors), employees distrusted their facility management the most and their specialty management the least.

Implications for Practice

Consistent with other studies, an open communication system and leader behaviors are crucial to trust. Identifying early signs of distrust and addressing them may prevent more serious or lasting trust issues.

Location of Article

The article is available online at: (abstract free, purchase full article)

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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