Topic: Trust and Social Exchange

Author(s), Title and Publication

Bernerth, J. B., & Walker, H. J. (2009). Propensity to Trust and the Impact on Social Exchange: An Empirical Investigation. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 15(3), 217-226.


Social exchange theory suggests that people expect some future return when they give another person a reward, resource, authority, effort, or other perceived commodity. In the workplace, social exchanges might include strong job performance, high commitment and job satisfaction, low rates of turnover and absenteeism, and favorable supervisor-employee relationships, among others. Though considerable attention has been devoted to leader-member social exchange, little is known about the antecedents of those exchanges.  This study investigated the influence of supervisors’ and employees’ propensity to trust, defined as a stable disposition to believe in the goodness of others, based on employees’ perceptions of social exchange with their supervisors (e.g., efforts are reciprocated by managers). Data were collected from a mail survey of 195 MBA students and alumni in a large southeastern university and their supervisors (195 people).

Results indicated that employees’ propensity to trust was positively related to their perceived social exchange with supervisors; managerial propensity to trust did not have a direct influence on employees’ perceptions of social exchange. A possible reason is that managerial personality (e.g., propensity for trust) is dependent on the situation (e.g., subordinates). Because of the possible risks involved in empowering employees, even managers who are trusting may first carefully consider the trustworthiness of employees. In addition, the interaction between managers’ and employees’ propensity to trust revealed that employees perceived the most positive exchange relationships when both managers and employees were trusting. The research also suggested that the impact of subordinates’ personalities on their behaviors might be affected by personalities of surrounding persons. Thus, a team with more similarities among its members may work more effectively than a team with more differences.

Implications for Practice

This study confirms the importance of creating trusting supervisor-employee relationship. To achieve favorable organizational outcomes, it is not enough for supervisors to demonstrate trust in their employees by involving them in planning, problem solving, or important tasks. What is more important over time is for supervisors to build their trustworthiness by consistently being reliable, keeping promises, being fair and honest with employees, and showing respect for them.

Location of Article

The article is available at: (free abstract, 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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