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A New Way of Understanding Trust and Perceived Justice in the Workplace


June 4th, 2014

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Research on personnel psychology and organizational behavior has demonstrated how fairness and justice engender trust in the workplace. The relationship between the two has been believed to be reciprocal, where trust is a consequence of the perceived justice – as proposed by the classic formulation of social exchange theory – and gradually expands through positive interactions. For instance, employees will trust their supervisor’s decisions more or less from evaluating the fairness of previous interactions with the supervisor.

Assistant Professor of Human Resource Management Brian Holtz takes this notion one step further and proposes the trust primacy model: a new theoretical framework that maintains that trust is formed prior to the direct interaction with others, hence exerting significant influence on employee perceptions of justice. This suggests that an opinion is formulated before the interactions among the players involved and continues to evolve and grow over time.

For his model, Holtz brings together principles of evolutionary theory, neuroscientific research, and psychological perspectives to build a strong case for the rapid development of trust and its influence on perception, resulting inevitably in preceding direct fairness experiences at the inception of relationships.

In his most recent article published in the Journal of Management, Holtz states that we determine trust through biological and sociocultural cues that can drive inferences of trustworthiness. Some of the biological cues may include facial expressions, eye contact and tone of voice. Sociocultural cues may include clothing, tattoos, credentials and socioeconomic status. Both have an effect on how we build trust toward others. His research supports neuroscientific perspectives in that people’s judgments are quick cognitions that are formed in milliseconds and through as little as a single glance, which help us infer a wide variety of information, such as the intentions of others.

Holtz has built a substantial research record founded on the principles of justice and fairness and their application to the workplace. His previous research provides a strong foundation for his proposed model, which extends existing frameworks and offers a more complete integration of the trust and justice literatures.

Holtz’s trust primacy model is the first theoretical framework to propose specific cognitive processes underlying the effect of trust on perception of justice events. Besides implications for further research, this new model brings awareness to managers and challenges organizations to strive for developing trust through clear signals right at the outset of employment relationships.

This research is reported in:

Holtz, Brian (2013).Trust primacy: a model of the reciprocal relations between trust and perceived justice. Journal of Management, 39 (7): 1891-1923, first published online on January 28, 2013.

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