How to Increase Trust in Top Organizational Leaders

Topic(s): leadership, organizational justice, performance
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2017)
Article: Trust in Direct Leaders and Top Leaders: A Trickle-Up Mode
Authors: C.A. Fulmer, C. Ostroff
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

Organizations are more successful when employees trust in top leaders. Commitment to corporate ideals becomes more natural, productivity rises, and intention to stay on the job increases. But the people we consider top leaders, such as company executives or top managers, are rarely accessible to lower level employees. How can CEOs or other top leaders increase the extent to which they are trusted if they never see most of their employees?


New research (Fulmer & Ostroff, 2017) demonstrates an effect they call trickle-up trust. Their survey of 336 military officers-in-training revealed that trust in a direct supervisor was related to trust in higher-up leaders. The more people trusted a direct leader, the more they trusted higher level leaders. This effect occurred because of the perceived procedural justice level of the direct leader. Procedural justice means a fair allocation of resources and fair resolution of disputes. It seems that when people believe that their direct supervisors settle matters fairly, they also believe that top-level leaders would do the same and are therefore more trustworthy.

The researchers also measured performance. They found that the link between trusting top leaders and performance was stronger than the link between trusting direct leaders and performance. They say that trusting in top leaders may have a broader effect on willingness to contribute to the organization as a whole, which may have more profound effects on performance.


Additionally, the researchers found that the effects of trickle-up trust were stronger when employees had low levels of “vertical collectivism.” Vertical collectivism is a way of saying that people value things like harmony with others, collectivism, the common good, and obedience to authority. People who value these ideals may already be more inclined to trust in top leadership, regardless of how they are treated by their supervisors. On the other hand, for those employees who do not place as much value on the ideals of vertical collectivism, trickle-up trust was more influential in determining if they trust their top leaders. In other words, for them to trust their top leaders, it is very important for them to trust their direct leaders.


This research demonstrates the importance of trust in direct leaders. This level of trust not only effects the day-to-day interactions, morale, and motivation of employees, but will also influence the level of trust the employees have for top-level organizational leaders. This could have even more profound effects on organizational productivity. Supervisors must understand that they are a de-facto representation of the trustworthiness of the entire organizational leadership. In the same vein, top leaders must understand that lower-level leaders represent them. When CEOs want to appear trustworthy, they should make sure lower-level leaders throughout the organization also comply with justice initiatives.

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Fulmer, C. A., & Ostroff, C. (2017). Trust in direct leaders and top leaders: A trickle-up model. Journal of Applied Psychology102(4), 648-657.