Trust in the leader is important for team performance

Topic(s): leadership, teams

Topic: Leadership, Teams
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (JUL 2011)
Article: Cognition-based and affect-based trust as mediators of leader behavior influences on team performance
Authors: Schaubroeck, J., Lam, S. S. K., & Peng, A. C.
Reviewed by: Alexandra Rechlin

Little research has explored the role that trust in the leader plays on team performance. This study examined that relationship and provided support for a model of affect-based and cognition-based trust in the leader mediating (linking) the relationship between leader behavior patterns and team performance.

Two types of trust in the leader were explored in this study: cognition-based trust and affect-based trust. Cognition-based trust is based on one’s perceptions of the leader’s competence, while affect-based trust is based on one’s feelings for the leader (e.g., a sense of empathy or concern from the leader). In this study, cognition-based trust was positively related to team performance through team potency (a team’s belief in its capability). Affect-based trust was positively related to team performance through psychological safety (a team’s belief that it is safe to take interpersonal risks, like suggesting unpopular ideas).

Transformational leadership is a behavior pattern in which the leader conveys a vision and strategic goals to inspire followers. Servant leadership emphasizes the followers, focusing on their welfare and supporting them. The authors found that transformational leadership was positively related to team potency through cognition-based trust. Servant leadership was positively related to team psychological safety through affect-based trust. In addition, both servant leadership and transformational leadership were positively and independently related to team performance.

To put this all in simpler terms, trust in the leader is important for team performance. Transformational leadership leads to cognition-based trust in the leader, which in turn leads to the team’s belief in its own capabilities, and that belief subsequently leads to increased team performance. Servant leadership leads to affect-based trust, which leads to an increase in the team’s sense of psychological safety, which then leads to increased team performance.

So what does all this mean for leaders? Leaders should engage in both transformational and servant leadership. They are not mutually exclusive, and they lead to different types of trust, which subsequently (and separately) lead to better team performance. Leaders may also want to adapt their behavior patterns depending on whether cognitive- or affect-based trust is more important for their situation.

Schaubroeck, J., Lam, S. S. K., & Peng, A. C. (2011). Cognition-based and affect-based trust as mediators of leader behavior influences on team performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96, 863-871. doi: 10.1037/a0022625