Sub-theme 15: Trust-based Organizing: Principles and Politics

Guido Möllering
Witten/Herdecke University, Germany
Sabina Siebert
University of Glasgow, United Kingdom
Søren Jagd
Roskilde University, Denmark

Call for Papers

This sub-theme asks how trust-based organizing is possible, how it might contribute to the greater good, and also how it implies that conflicts are resolved or subdued. The topic remains relevant, not least as the corporate world is shaken by scandals, again and again, provoking the question of whether trust is part of the problem or part of the solution. How can a trust-based organization be The Good Organization?
While every organization can be analysed in terms of how much trust there is within and between its different intra- and interorganizational levels, trust also constitutes an “organizing principle” (McEvily et al., 2003) or “control mechanism” (Bradach & Eccles, 1989) that characterizes “trust-based forms of governance” (Powell, 1996). We refer to trust-based organizing as an ongoing process of shaping rules and relationships within and between organizations according to the principle of trust, which implies notions such as reciprocity, responsibility, reliability and solidarity in the face of uncertainty and vulnerability.
Trust, as a phenomenon and principle, appears to be inherently desirable. It promises a range of benefits due to lower costs, greater motivation or openness to innovation. Trust contains a positive notion of morality and ethicality (e.g. Hosmer, 1995; Banerjee et al., 2006). However, trust may not always be “good” for everyone and everywhere. The same applies to the notion of trust-based leadership which can trigger overly optimistic expectations while the complex relation between trust and leadership is underestimated (Kramer, 2011).
The idea of working in a “collaborative community” (Heckscher & Adler, 2007) may be appealing, but trust has its “downside” (McEvily et al., 2003) and “dark sides” (Kramer et al., 1996; Gargiulo & Ertug, 2006); it may be insincere, spurious, façade-like, unwanted or unnecessary; and it may cover up underlying struggles and conflicts (e.g. Fox, 1974; Hardy et al., 1998; Siebert et al., 2015). Trust-based organizing may fail when trust is not really achieved, not really appropriate or even a “poisoned chalice” (Skinner et al., 2014). More attention needs to been given to such “politics of trust” (Culbert & McDonough, 1986).
Research to date has emphasized organizational outcomes (e.g. Zaheer et al., 1998) and has rarely looked at societal outcomes of trust within and between organizations. Claims have been made, and debated, about trust’s positive impact on whole economies (e.g. Fukuyama, 1995; Zak & Knack, 2001) but there is little work specifically on whether organizations that operate on the basis of trust actually create benefits for society, such as improvements in prosperity, health, sustainability or social cohesion.
Who reaps the potential benefits from trust? It is well known that some of the socially most harmful organizations operate successfully because of the strong trust relationships among their members and supporters (e.g. Simmel, 1950). Eisenstadt and Roniger (1984) point to the “dialectics of trust and the social order” whereby trusting is institutionalized but also subversive. In this light, particularized trust within and between organizations may not be the solution but part of the underlying problem by supporting, for example, corruption and exploitation (Tonoyan, 2005). Similarly, we may question if the positive effects of trust are distributed fairly among those who invest their trust. And who bears the brunt of broken trust, overreliance on trust or failed attempts at trust repair (e.g. Bachmann et al., 2015)?
In sum, we need to ask how trust can become a sustainable organizational principle. When is trust-based organizing possible and desirable? What do trust-based organizational rules and relationships contribute to stakeholders’ well-being and the greater good? What kind of conflicts are resolved, subdued or created through trust-based organizing? Which theories and methods do we need to use and develop in order to answer these questions?
This sub-theme encourages scholars to delve deeper into the issues indicated above. We call for theoretically and methodologically sophisticated, and at the same time ‘relevant’, research that deeply engages with the principles and politics of trust-based organizing at various organizational levels. The EGOS Standing Working Group (SWG) on Organizational Trust that ran from 2011 to 2016 developed themes of trust as related to contexts, crises, dynamics, power, practices and processes, which has prepared the ground for the current sub-theme but with a new angle: The overall theme of the EGOS Colloquium 2017, “The Good Organization”, gives us the opportunity to finally discuss and promote explicitly the societal impact and relevance of organizational trust which is one of the most needed and promising avenues for trust research.


  • Bachmann, R., Gillespie, N., & Priem, R. (2015): “Repairing trust in organizations and institutions: Toward a conceptual framework.” Organization Studies, 36 (9), 1123–1142.
  • Banerjee, S., Bowie, N.E., & Pavone, C. (2006): “An ethical analysis of the trust relationship.” In: R. Bachmann & A. Zaheer (eds.): Handbook of Research on Trust. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 303–317.
  • Bradach, J.L., & Eccles, R.G. (1989): “Price, authority and trust: From ideal types to plural forms.” Annual Review of Sociology, 15, 97–118.
  • Culbert, S.A., & McDonough, J.J. (1986): “The politics of trust and organization empowerment.” Public Administration Quarterly, 10 (2), 171–188.
  • Eisenstadt, S.N., & Roniger, L. (1984): Patrons, Clients and Friends: Interpersonal Relations and the Structure of Trust in Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gargiulo, M., & Ertug, G. (2006): “The dark side of trust.” In: R. Bachmann & A. Zaheer (eds.): Handbook of Research on Trust. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 165–186.
  • Fox, A. (1974): Beyond Contract: Work, Power and Trust Relations. London: Faber & Faber.
  • Fukuyama, F. (1995): Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. London: Hamish Hamilton.
  • Hardy, C., Phillips, N., & Lawrence, T. (1998): “Distinguishing trust and power in inter-organizational relations: Forms and façades of trust.” In: C. Lane & R. Bachmann (eds.): Trust Within and Between Organizations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 64–87.
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  • Hosmer, L.T. (1995): “Trust: The connecting link between organizational theory and philosophical ethics.” Academy of Management Review, 20 (2), 379–403.
  • Kramer, R.M. (2011): ”Trust and distrust in the leadership process: A review and assessment of theory and evidence.” In: A. Bryman, D. Collinson, K. Grint, B. Jackson & M. Uhl-Bien (eds.): The SAGE Handbook of Leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 136–150.
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  • McEvily, B., Perrone, V., & Zaheer, A. (2003): “Trust as an organizing principle.” Organization Science, 14 (1), 91–103.
  • Powell, W.W. (1996): “Trust-based form of governance.” In: T.R. Tyler & R.M. Kramer (eds.): Trust in Organizations: Frontiers of Theory and Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 51–67.
  • Siebert, S., Martin, G. Bozic, B., & Docherty, I. (2015): “Looking beyond the factory gates: Towards more pluralist and radical approaches to intra-organizational trust research.” Organization Studies, 36 (8), 1033–1062.
  • Simmel, G. 1950 [1908]: The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: Free Press.
  • Skinner, D., Dietz, G., & Weibel, A. (2014): “The dark side of trust: When trust becomes a ‘poisoned chalice’.” Organization, 21 (2), 206–224.
  • Tonoyan, V. (2005): “The dark side of trust: Corruption and entrepreneurship – a cross-national comparison between emerging and mature market economies.” In: H.-H. Höhmann & F. Welter (eds.): Trust and Entrepreneurship: A West–East Perspective. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 39–58.
  • Zaheer, A., McEvily, B., & Perrone, V. (1998): “Does trust matter? Exploring the effects of interorganizational and interpersonal trust on performance.” Organization Science, 9 (2), 141–159.
  • Zak, P., & Knack, S. (2001): “Trust and growth.” Economic Journal, 111 (470), 295–321.
Guido Möllering heads the Reinhard Mohn Institute of Management at Witten/Herdecke University, Germany, and works on transorganizational practices of management with a long-standing focus on trust. He published several books, e.g. “Trust: Reason, Routine, Reflexivity”, and articles in leading journals such as ‘Organization Science’, ‘Organization Studies’, and ‘Journal of International Business Studies’. He is a Senior Editor of ‘Organization Studies’ and a Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the ‘Journal of Trust Research’.
Sabina Siebert is Professor of Management at the University of Glasgow, UK, and researches in the area of organizational trust, sociology of the professions, and management in the creative industries. She employs a range of qualitative methodologies including discourse analysis, narrative analysis and organizational ethnography. Sabina has published in various journals such as ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Sociology’ and ‘Work Employment and Society’. She is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the ‘European Management Journal’.
Søren Jagd is Professor in Trust Based Leadership at Roskilde University, Denmark, working on leadership and trust, trust and control, and process perspectives on trust. He has been involved in organizing the “Nordic Research Network on Trust within and between Organizations” since 2010. His work has appeared in journals such as ‘Current Sociology’ and ‘Organization’, as well as books (e.g. “Trust, Organizations and Social Interaction: Studying Trust as Process within and between Organizations”, forthcoming).