Home All Trust as a Proxy for Love

Trust as a Proxy for Love

written by Kathryn Britton 7 February 2009

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

At the recent CGU conference, Chris Peterson told a story about a research study at the US Military Academy. Incoming cadets took the Values in Action signature strengths survey. After their first year, instructors rated the leadership potential of each student. The results were then compared to the signature strengths measured at the beginning of the year. The one strength that showed marked positive correlation with leadership potential was Love and be Loved. When Chris expressed surprise, his army research partner asked him quizzically, “What part of ‘Band of Brothers’ do you not understand?”

TrustWhile that makes a great story, Love and be Loved is not often explicitly associated with organizational behavior. When I looked through several books on the subject, I found the word “love” in the index of only one, Positive Organizational Scholarship, where it was listed only as one of Barbara Fredrickson’s positive emotions.

However in Exploring Positive Relationships at Work, I did find a concept that may be a good proxy for Love and Be Loved at work: Trust. Michael Pratt and Kurt Davis describe a commitment-based model of trust that I found particularly interesting because it suggests many ways that trust can be repaired. We are in a time where trust in organizations is likely to be frayed by hard economic choices. So a model that suggests ways to restore trust is particularly useful.

Commitment Model of Trust
In the commitment model, trust has three simultaneous elements, described below in terms of the trust you might have for your boss:

  • positive elements – benefits the relationship brings, such as feelings of being supported, properly directed, and appreciated
  • negative elements — risks associated with the relationship, such as the feeling that the boss has power over you, is evaluating your performance and may lay you off

Balance Scales

  • the way the two are bound together–the transformation of ambivalence through choice and interpretation, such as choosing (or not) to see one’s boss as a benevolent and fair person who will protect you if possible and help you if negative events occur

Positive elements and negative elements vary over time, which makes the transformation process highly dynamic. Positive and negative do not cancel each other out. Sometimes the positive dominates and trust is experienced as a joy. Sometimes the negative dominates and trust is experienced as an obligation. Trust is more robust when both parties consciously recognize and accept negative elements as well as positive elements.

If positive and negative are too far out of balance, trust may end. For example, if the negative far outweighs the positive, a person may retreat from the relationship, believing trust is no longer justified. If the positive far outweighs the negative, trust becomes meaningless because there is no risk.

Implications for Repairing Trust

The beauty of this model is that it shows several actions that either side can take to repair trust after a violation. A few of the possibilities suggested by the model are listed below, but this is just a beginning. I’ve illustrated them with examples for a company that has just laid people off. Trust is important with the people who have been laid off — how do they speak about the company to the rest of the world? — but especially with the people who are still employed, who have the choice of begrudging acceptance, pragmatic forgiveness, or transcendent forgiveness, to borrow the words of David Bright.

Balanced Rocks

Balanced Rocks

  • Increasing the salience of the positive: For example, a company that is laying people off may provide a variety of services to help them find new jobs and survive the uncertainty. These actions can be perceived as caring by the people who remain.
  • Recognizing both positives and negatives. Positive factors sometimes are easy to overlook. People may forget past positives or have trouble projecting future positives. So, for example, people might think back to ways the company or boss supported them in the past. I tended to remember the incredible support that I got when I was going through a difficult pregnancy.
  • Framing the violation in ways that decrease the salience of the negative: People tend to perceive violations based on competence (“You didn’t know enough enough,” or “You couldn’t find an alternative,”) differently than they do violations based on integrity (“You did this to feather your nest at my expense,”). In fact, with violations of competence, people tend to weigh positive information more heavily than negative information, and vice versa with violations of integrity.
  • Framing the violation so that the one violated can feel empathy for the violator (“It must be terrible for you to have to let valuable people go.”)
  • Given that choice is a key concern for the violated party, it can be served by the violator making an open offer of reparations, where the violated party has a say in what the reparations will be. My imagination fails me with respect to boss-employee trust, but it is not too hard to see in other relationships. Having a choice in how the violator exhibits penance, makes it easier for the violated one to rebalance and rejustify the positive and negatives.
  • Nourishing hope and optimism that the violation can be repaired. Hope and optimism can motivate the violator to persist even if initial attempts at repair fail. Hope and optimism sometimes come from imagining future benefits of the relationship.

I find this model very satisfying because it reflects the fact that positive relationships have both positive and negative elements, that we have choices in how we bond positive and negative, and that resilient and generative relationships are “ongoing works in progress that strive for a beneficial, dynamic coherence rather than the once-and-for-all attainment of an ideal and static goal.” (p. 134)


Primary References:

Pratt, M. & Dirks, K. (2007). Rebuilding trust and restoring positive relationships: A commitment-based view of trust. In J. E. Dutton & B. Ragins, Eds. Exploring Positive Relationships at Work: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation (Lea’s Organization and Management). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bright, D. S. (2006). Forgiveness and change: Begrudging, pragmatic, and transcendent responses to discomfiture in a unionized trucking company. Dissertation at Case Western Reserve.

From the abstract: “The data show three distinct modes of thinking about forgiveness: begrudgement, pragmatism, and transcendence. The begrudging mode perpetuates harbored negativity, conflict and retaliation. The pragmatic mode fosters transactional, utilitarian thinking where the neutralization of negativity is necessary for functional relationships. The transcendent mode encourages forbearance and positivity in the face of offense.”

Cameron, K., Bright, D. S., & Caza, A. (2004). Exploring the relationships between organizational virtuousness and performance. American Behavioral Scientist. Special Issue: Contributions to Positive Organizational Scholarship, 47(6), 766-790.

From the abstract: “The findings are explained in terms of the two major functions played by virtuousness in organizations: an amplifying function that creates self-reinforcing positive spirals, and a buffering function that strengthens and protects organizations from traumas such as downsizing.”

Peterson, C. & Park, N. (2006). Character strengths in organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27, 1149–1154.

“So, in an ongoing prospective study of cadets at the US Military Academy, we are finding that the strength of hope predicts who stays in the service.”

“Along these lines, in our study of cadets, we are learning that the strength of love predicts accomplishments as a leader.” Both quotations from page 1151.

Additional References:

Cameron, K. (2007). Forgiveness in organizations. In D. L. Nelson & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), Positive Organizational Behavior, pp. 129-142. London: Sage Publications.

Cameron,K., Dutton, J. & Quinn, R. (Eds.) Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline, pp. 296-308. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sanders, T. (2003). Love Is the Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends. Crown Business. (Suggested by Sean Glass)

I can’t remember where I got the image of the man tossing his child in the air. I just love it as a representation of trust — otherwise how could the child feel glee? If anyone can tell me where this came from, I am happy to provide proper attribution or remove it if copyrighted.

The image of balanced Rocks is from Kajvin’s photostream in Flickr where it is labeled Älmhult 090207. It is used with permission from the photographer according the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.

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Sean Glass 7 February 2009 - 4:35 pm

What a great article. Thank you! One non-positive psychology book that I would point to that does focus on love is “Love is the killer app” by Tim Sanders. Although I don’t believe there is a lot of Org. Dev. research that focuses on love, there are people in the business world who believe that the ability to love and be loved is related to great outcomes.

Dave Shearon 7 February 2009 - 9:42 pm

Kathryn, thanks for this describing this model! Very interesting.

OK, my memory may be off, but didn’t Jane Dutton, after she had talked about high quality connections, say that what she was talking about was “love”? That’s my memory, but…

Christine Duvivier 8 February 2009 - 11:08 am

Kathryn, Thank you for the fantastic article. I love the way you connected Love to Trust and Leadership! This is an article I would like to share with clients in business. Thanks for your crisp, clear writing on this subject.

Kathryn Britton 8 February 2009 - 2:45 pm

Thanks for the book suggestion. I’ll add it to the resource list in the article. Like that army officer that Chris talked to, there are people who see the value of love and be loved in organizations. But in general, I’m not so sure. Chris also found that when people in the navy ranked strengths according to their importance for excellent performance, love came out around 22 out of 24. I think that’s an interesting discrepancy.


Kathryn Britton 8 February 2009 - 2:49 pm

I think Jane Dutton did make the connection when she talked to us, but the word “love” doesn’t appear in the index to either of her books about relationships shown above. I suspect it’s a matter of vocabulary — using language that business people can understand and accept.


Kathryn Britton 8 February 2009 - 2:50 pm

Thank you “for the flower.” I’d be interested to hear if your business associates find it clear as well. I wonder if the idea of a model helps get the point across.


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