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Not So Different After All: A Cross-discipline View of Trust

  • University Professor at Carnegie Mellon


Our task is to adopt a multidisciplinary view of trust within and between firms, in an effort to synthesize and give insight into a fundamental construct of organizational science. We seek to identify the shared understandings of trust across disciplines, while recognizing that the divergent meanings scholars bring to the study of trust also can add value.
^ Acadomy of Management Review
Vol. 23, No. 3, 393-404,
Carnegie Mellon University
Duke University
University of Chicago
California Institute of Technology
Our task is to adopt a multidisciplinary view
of trust within and between firms, in an effort to
synthesize and give insight into a fundamental
construct of organizational science. We seek to
identify the shared understandings of trust
across disciplines, while recognizing that the
divergent meanings scholars bring to the study
of trust also can add value.
Disciplinary differences characterizing tradi-
tional treatments of trust suggest that inherent
conflicts and divergent assumptions are at work
Economists tend to view trust as
either calculative (Williamson, 1993) or institu-
tional (North, 1990). Psychologists commonly
frame their assessments of trust in terms of at-
tributes of trustors and trustees and focus upon
a host of internal cognitions that personal at-
tributes yield (Rotter, 1967; Tyler, 1990; see
Deutsch, 1962, for an example of more calcula-
tive framing by a psychologist). Sociologists of-
ten find trust in socially embedded properties of
relationships among people (Granovetter, 1985)
or institutions (Zucker, 1986).
These different assumptions are manifest in
our divergent use oi language. To some scholars
the term "contract" refers to a legal means for
avoiding risk where trust is not particularly high
(Smitka, 1994; Williamson, 1975); to others the
We thank Paul Goodman and Bill McEvily for their helpful
comments, Carole McCoy for patient word processing, and
Cathy Senderling for her wonderful editing.
word signals a basis for trust resulting from
sharing and mutuality (Macauley, 1963; Rous-
seau, 1995). Notwithstanding our differences in
emphasis and approach, if our disciplines are to
communicate, we must assume that others are
seeking some common meanings, just as we are.
Without that assumption, we will not make a
good-faith effort to understand one another, re-
ferred to by Sabel as the "act of charity"
111) necessary to produce mutual intelligibility
out of a mix of ideas and terms. As a result, our
disciplines will continue to work at cross-
purposes and will remain fragmented.
A phenomenon as complex as trust requires
theory and research methodology that reflect
trust's many facets and levels. The features of
trust that characterize the set of papers compos-
ing this special issue include
multilevel trust (individual, group, firm, and
trust within and between organizations,
multidisciplinary trust,
the multiple causal roles of trust (trust as a
cause, outcome, and moderator),
trust as impacted by organizational change,
new, emerging forms of trust.
This body of work suggests that trust may be a
concept, integrating microlevel psycho-
logical processes and group dynamics with ma-
crolevel institutional arrangements (House,
Rousseau, & Thomas-Hunt, 1995). In effect, to
study trust within and between firms is to ride
394Academy of
the organizational elevator up and down a va-
riety of conceptual levels. Our ride in this ele-
vator will focus on the interconnected hallways
of the contemporary firm, rather than its isolated
corner offices.
It may appear that we believe trust research
reflects casual scholarship because efforts to
date have focused more on charting the territory
than on probing its depths. However, work on
trust, as evidenced by this special issue and a
very insightful recent book by Kramer and Tyler
is beginning to take a more well-defined
and focused form. As the authors of this special
topic forum demonstrate, trust is at once related
to dispositions, decisions, behaviors, social net-
works, and institutions. However, despite the
complex (one might say "multiplex") character
of trust, this special issue attempts to promote
the accumulation rather than the fragmentation
of theory and research on trust.
Our goals in this Introduction are to (1) gauge
whether there are common elements underlying
trust as it is viewed across disciplines and dif-
ferent levels of analysis, (2) discuss views schol-
ars hold regarding the dynamics of trust (i.e.,
whether it is static or has phases), and (3) clarify
the multiple ways in which organizational re-
searchers model trust (as cause, effect, or mod-
with the ultimate goal of creating a more
cumulative body of knowledge on trust in and
between organizations. We begin by investigat-
ing a series of assumptions about trust.
To date, we have had no universally accepted
scholarly definition of trust. There is agreement
that trust is important in a number of ways: it
enables cooperative behavior (Gambetta, 1988);
promotes adaptive organizational forms, such
as network relations (Miles & Snow, 1992); re-
duces harmful conflict; decreases transaction
facilitates rapid formulation of ad hoc
work groups (Meyerson, Weick, & Kramer, 1996);
and promotes effective responses to crisis.
Sometimes, scholars use the term "trust" when
they mean other things, which has been prob-
lematic (Sitkin
Roth, 1993). In a very influential
early line of "trust" research, Deutsch (1962), for
instance, uses the term when referring to coop-
eration within groups. However, cooperation
may result from a variety of reasons unrelated to
trust, such as coercion (e.g., court-ordered com-
pliance). This blurring of the distinction be-
tween trust and cooperation has led to a fuzzi-
ness in the treatment of behavior-based trust
and the construct of trust
To advance our understanding of trust, we
suggest that the concept of trust requires clear
boundaries to usefully inform research and the-
ory. We explore how trust's boundaries are con-
stituted by examining the articles that make up
this special topic forum in relation to bound-
aries proposed in previous treatments of trust.
We structure our analysis around four key ques-
tions about the state of our knowledge regard-
ing trust. We begin with a basic question.
Do Scholars Fundamentally Agree or
Disagree on the Meaning of Trust?
To answer this question, let us examine how
trust is defined in the articles in this special
topic forum. Regardless of the underlying disci-
pline of the authors—from psychology/micro-or-
ganizational behavior (e.g., Lewicki, McAllister,
& Bies; Mishra & Spreitzer) to strategy/econom-
ics (e.g., Bhattacharya, Devinney, & Pillutla)
confident expectations and a willingness to be
vulnerable are critical components of all defini-
tions of trust reflected in the articles. The most
frequently cited definition in this special issue
is "willingness to be vulnerable," proposed by
Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman (1995).
This contemporary definition plays the central
role in defining trust for McKnight, Cummings,
and Chervany; Mishra and Spreitzer; and Jones
and George. Other authors say the same thing
but with diifeient words: "willingness to rely" on
another (Doney, Cannon, & Mullen) and "confi-
dent, positive expectations" (Lewicki et al.).
"Positive expectations" of others defines trust
for Hagen and Choe, Elangovan and Shapiro,
and Das and Teng, whereas trust is a positive
attitude toward others for authors Whitener,
Brodt, Korsgaard, and Werner. Even Bigley and
Pearce, who make a case for the absence of an
overarching definition of trust, characterize it in
much the same way as other authors—as "vul-
nerability," "perception," and "preconscious ex-
pectation." Our evidence from this contempo-
rary, cross-disciplinary collection of scholarly
writing suggests, therefore, that a widely held
definition of trust is as follows:
Buit, and Camerer395
Trust is a psychological state compris-
ing the intention to accept vulnerabil-
ity based upon positive expectations
of the intentions or behavior of an-
Note that identification of common meaning
does not imply that all operationalizations of
trust reflect the same thing. For example, clear
evidence exists that interorganizational and in-
terpersonal trust are different, because the focal
object differs (Zaheer, McEvily, & Perrone, in
However, the composition of trust (i.e., the
fundamental elements of its definition) are com-
parable across research and theory focusing on
parties both inside and outside firms and inves-
tigating trust relations from different disciplin-
ary vantage points. We did not expect this re-
sult, but it is encouraging to observe.
Across disciplines, there is agreement on the
conditions that must exist for trust to arise. Risk is
one condition considered essential in psychologi-
sociological, and economic conceptualiza-
tions of trust (Coleman,
Risk is the perceived probability of loss,
as interpreted by a decision maker (Chiles
path-dependent connection between trust and risk
taking arises from a reciprocal relationship: risk
creates an opportunity for trust, which leads to
risk taking. Moreover, risk taking buttresses a
sense of trust when the expected behavior mate-
rializes (Coleman, 1990; Das & Teng, this issue).
Trust would not be needed if actions could be
undertaken with complete certainty and no risk
(Lewis & Weigert, 1985). Uncertainty regarding
whether the other intends to and will act appro-
priately is the source of risk.
The second necessary condition of trust is in-
terdependence, where the interests of one party
cannot be achieved without reliance upon an-
other. Although both risk and interdependence
are required for trust to emerge, the nature of
risk and trust changes as interdependence in-
creases (Sheppard & Sherman, this issue). De-
grees of interdependence actually alter the form
trust may take, with the nature of trust a firm
places in temporary workers being quite distinct
from trust associated with its veteran, core em-
ployees. Authors of several articles in this spe-
cial issue provide frameworks linking forms of
trust to the context of the relationship (Lewicki,
McAllister, & Bies; Sheppard & Sherman). In-
deed, the time may be right for an overarching
view of trust across forms of interdependence.
To answer our initial question, scholars do
appear to agree fundamentally on the meaning
of trust. Trust, as the willingness to be vulnera-
ble under conditions of risk and interdepen-
dence, is a psychological state that researchers
in various disciplines interpret in terms of "per-
ceived probabilities" (Bhattacharya et al., this
"confidence," and "positive expectations"
(e.g., Jones & George, Hagen & Choe, Das &
Teng, all this issue)—all variations on the same
theme. Trust is not a behavior (e.g., cooperation),
or a choice (e.g., taking a risk), bu t an underlying
psychological condition that can cause or result
from such actions. Regardless of the discipline
of the researcher, we share the root assumptions
that trust is psychological and important to or-
ganizational life.
Finally, because risk and interdependence
are necessary conditions for trust, variations in
these factors over the course of a relationship
between parties can alter both the level and,
potentially, the form that trust takes. The poten-
tial for trust to change gives rise to a second
Do Researchers View Trust Statically?
A focus on static and stable phenomena is
characteristic of normal science, which values
precision and control. Indeed, equilibrium seek-
ing is an underlying assumption in such fields
as economics. Given this emphasis, it is not
surprising that scholars often have treated trust
as static. Social psychologists often see trust as
either/or, where one person either completely
trusts or completely distrusts another (Gabarro,
cited in Lewicki et al., this issue). This
all-or-nothing view is linked to the pre-
dominance in early trust research of laboratory
studies focusing on highly structured games,
such as the Prisoner's Dilemma game (e.g., Ax-
elrod, 1984). Under such conditions, the level of
trust reflects a single point, rather than a distri-
bution along an intra- or interpersonal contin-
uum. However, the fact that trust changes over
time—developing, building, declining, and
even resurfacing in long-standing relation-
ships—is evidence from comparative and histor-
ical research upon trust in organizations (Miles
& Creed, 1995) and in the broader society
(Fukuyama, 1995).
Managemenf Review
But the question remains whether scholars
pursuing precision and control have focused un-
duly upon trust as a static rather than dynamic
phenomenon. To answer the question, we exam-
ine the articles in this special topic forum in
terms of three phases of trust: (1) building (where
trust is formed or reformed), (2) stability (where
trust already exists), and (3) dissolution (where
trust declines). These phases of trust character-
ize the ebb and flow of relationships. Character-
izing this issue's articles in terms of the phase
upon which they focus helps address how com-
prehensively scholars have viewed the develop-
ment of trust.
The fauiiding phase is addressed in several
in the emergence of trust in new organ-
izational settings (McKnight et al.) and new or-
ganizational relationships (Das & Teng), or in
the context of an existing relationship between
workers and managers (Whitener et al.) where
trust may be created or enhanced. The function-
ing of trust under stable conditions is central to
the broad treatments given to institutional fac-
tors associated with trust by Hagen and Choe
(trust in Japanese society) and Sheppard and
Sherman (trust across different relational forms).
Declining trust is the focal point in articles on
downsizing (Mishra & Spreitzer) and betrayal
(Elangovan & Shapiro), in which the authors ex-
plore the effects of reduced trust.
The articles here do not overemphasize stabil-
ity but address a variety of trust's phases, at
least raising the possibility of a balance in
scholarship on trust and its dynamics. A related
question thus arises. Do scholars recognize that
trust is dynamic but focus only upon a particular
phase? In 4 out of the 12 articles, the authors
consider multiple phases of trust. Processes of
trust building and decline are examined by
Jones and George, as well Bigley and Pearce.
Bhattacharya and his colleagues examine how
firm-based relationships begin and the condi-
tions under which they achieve stability. Fi-
nally, Lewicki and his colleagues, by focusing
simultaneously on antecedents of trust and dis-
trust (which they conceptualize as two distinct
constructs), run the gamut—from factors build-
ing trust or promoting distrust to conditions that
achieve an equilibrium in each and the dynam-
ics that can move individuals and firms through
distinct levels of trust and distrust.
In answer to the question, scholars do, at
focus on multiple phases. However, the
tendency of the authors in the majority of arti-
cles here is to focus upon building, stability, or
decline and to specify conceptual frameworks
within a particular phase. Such an emphasis on
phase-specific trust may be necessary at this
point in the development of trust scholarship.
Given the dynamic nature of trust, the next
question is related to trust's role in the causal
frameworks researchers employ.
Does the Status of Trust As a Cause, Effect,
or Interaction Vary Across Disciplines?
Theorists and researchers of trust may model
the concept as an independent variable (cause),
dependent variable (effect), or interaction vari-
able (a moderating condition for a causal rela-
When economic outcomes are of inter-
est, researchers often conceptualize trust as a
potential cause in choice scenarios framed
around social dilemmas. High trust, perhaps
based on previous experiences with a partner in
a repeated game, tends to result in the decision
to cooperate, which can lead to access to eco-
nomic gains, as in the classic Prisoner's Di-
lemma (Axelrod,
Miller, 1992). Trust, thus, is
conceptualized as an independent variable.
Similarly, transaction cost economists view
trust as a cause of reduced opportunism among
transacting parties, which results in lower
transaction costs (Williamson, 1975). Trust has
also long been found to be an important predic-
tor of successful negotiations and conflict-
management efforts (Deutsch, 1958), a nd it has a
direct effect on disputants' responses to media-
tors attempting to settle disputes (Ross & Wie-
land, 1996). We note that several articles in this
special topic forum consider trust as a cause.
Elangovan and Shapiro and Jones and George
focus exclusively on trust as an independent
In contrast, trust can be the result of deep
dependence and identity formation, as has been
the case historically in Japanese firms (Ouchi,
Trust as the result of institutional arrange-
ments is characteristic of a sociological per-
spective (e.g., Zucker, 1986). Third-party relations
have been found to impact trust, where existing
social structures shape a person's reputation
based upon a third party's ability to tell stories
that corroborate one's trustworthiness (or lack of
it; Burt & Knez, 1996). Further, trust can also be
seen as the result of attributes of the other party.
1998flousseau, Sitkin, Burt, and Cameiei 397
such as that party's competence, concern, open-
and reliability (Mishra, 1996). In this spe-
cial issue trust is conceptualized exclusively as
a result in seven articles (Bhattacharya et al.;
Doney et al.; Hagen & Choe; Lewicki et al.;
McKnight et al.; Sheppard
Sherman; Whitener
et al.). Note that these authors run the gamut of
disciplines—from psychology and organization-
al behavior to economics and marketing.
The moderating role of trust in shaping causal
relationships is characteristic of studies of inter-
personal behavior in organizations and social
settings, as found in both micro-organizational
behavior and social psychology (e.g., Robinson
& Rousseau, 1994). Mishra and Spreitzer (this
issue) use trust as a cause and moderator in
their modeling of reactions to downsizing,
whereas Bigley and Pearce (this issue), along
with Das and Teng (this issue), systematically
model trust in all three roles.
Our authors model the role of trust in diverse
regardless of their disciplinary base. The
economic focus of Das and Teng and Bhatta-
charya and his colleagues does not constrain
either article from treating trust as an effect,
despite the trend for economic models to use
trust to explain human choice (Miller, 1992). Sim-
ilarly, with their micro-organizational behavior
perspectives, Mishra and Spreitzer, Bigley and
Pearce, Elangovan and Shapiro, and Jones and
George view trust, at least in part, as a cause of
the behavior of interest—not simply an outcome
(whereas Lewicki et al., Sheppard and Sherman,
and Whitener et al. do follow in the traditional
use of trust as a micro-organizational behavior
individual response). Das and Teng model the
moderating effects of trust from an economic
viewpoint, whereas Bigley and Pearce and
Mishra and Spreitzer do the same from the van-
tage point of micro-organizational behavior.
We conclude, therefore, that disciplinary dif-
ferences do not account for the status given to
trust as an independent, dependent, or modera-
tor variable. Rather, the function of trust in the
causal frameworks researchers model appears
here to reflect richer and more complex cross-
disciplinary views.
Do Disciplinary Differences Exist in the
Levels of Analysis in Trust Research?
Our last question concerns the level of analy-
sis at which scholars conceptualize trust and
related phenomena. Our call for papers empha-
sized the desire for multilevel perspectives on
trust in and between organizations—reflecting
the array oi entities, individuals, dyads, groups,
networks, firms, and interfirm alliances in
which trust and related processes play a role. It
is commonly assumed that disciplines occupy
different turf in organizational science: psychol-
ogists, the individual and occasionally the
group; sociologists, the group and society; and
economists, the individual or the larger firm.
Strikingly, the great majority of articles in this
special issue include, often exclusively, a focus
on the individual—whether as trustor (e.g.,
Doney et al.; Lewicki et al.; McKnight et al.;
Spreitzer) or trustee (e.g., Elangovan &
Shapiro; Whitener et al.). Analysis at the indi-
vidual level tends to characterize conceptualiza-
tions of trust within firms, particularly the will-
ingness of subordinates to trust their bosses
(Whitener et al.). In five articles the authors ad-
dress firm-level trust: Das and Teng, exclusively
at the firm level; Hagen and Choe and Sheppard
and Shapiro, in combination with dyadic anal-
Bhattacharya and colleagues, in their anal-
ysis of the behavior of firms and agents; and
Bigley and Pearce, who address trust at multiple
Although micro-organizational behavior
researchers predominate at the individual level
and economists at the firm level, neither turf is
"sacred" to a particular field. Scholars from a
variety of backgrounds address phenomena at
any given level.
This special topic forum provides numerous
examples of articles adopting multiple levels of
analysis, as well as a simultaneous consider-
ation of trust within and between firms. Why
might trust require a multilevel analysis, re-
gardless of the disciplinary focus of the scholar?
First, we know that reputation matters, partic-
ularly the historical trustworthiness of parties in
previous interactions with others (Burt & Knez,
and it is the social context (e.g., networks)
that makes reputational effects possible. Social
norms shape both the behaviors parties engage
in, as well as their beliefs regarding the inten-
tions of others (Sitkin
Whitener et
this issue). Institutions promote