Trust-based leadership works

Bård Kuvaas

Research provides robust support for the benefits of trust-based leadership, writes Bård Kuvaas.

KNOWLEDGE & BI: Leadership in practise

In the debate on weaknesses in detailed management by objectives based on quantitative indicators, terms such as "trust-based leadership" or "trust-based governance" have been used to describe what I and many others have suggested as better options.

I have defined trust-based leadership as the extent to which a manager risk trusting his staff's competence and motivation to do a good job. Competence here means task-related knowledge, skills, abilities and attitudes; and motivation means the desire or determination to do a good job.

Leaders who do not take the risk to trust the competence and motivation of their followers, should demand better recruitment processes and training and learn more about the motivation of their followers.

Leaders who do not risk trusting their followers

Leaders who find it difficult to trust their followers' motivation to do as good as they can, should ask themselves how many people they know who feel happy with themselves when they know they have done a job badly.

Great volumes of research confirm that it is part of our human nature to experience positive and productive mental states when we are contributing and being useful. Leaders who "don't believe" in this kind of research or for other reasons reject it, should urgently consider some alternative career paths.

Signs of trust-based leadership

Trust-based leadership is present when followers experience high levels of job autonomy and low levels of unnecessary control.

Job autonomy that autonomy reflects the extent to which a job allows freedom, independence, and discretion to schedule work, make decisions, and choose the methods used to perform tasks.

Job autonomy, in turn, depends on strictly defined job descriptions are and on the reporting and control systems in place. It also depends on the employee's perception of his/her relationship with the leader.

Relationship with the leader

Research on leader-member exchange (LMX) relationships provides strong empirical support for the effectiveness of trust-based leadership.

The very basis for a so-called high-quality LMX relationship is that the follower trusts his/her leaders, which in turn is dependent on a type of leader behaviour that signals trust in the competence and motivation of the follower.

The association between various types of leadership behaviour and follower work performance as well as a number of other beneficial outcomes is in large part explained by the quality of the LMX relationship. This is the main finding of an extensive meta-analysis of more than 3300 individual studies and nearly a million observations (Gottfredson & Aguinis, 2016).

Crucial also for mental health and well-being

Another recent meta-analysis shows that a trust-based and high-quality LMX relationship is crucial for followers' mental health and well-being.

The higher-quality LMX relationship the follower experiences, the fewer symptoms they show of anger, anxiety, burnout, frustration and fear, and the less they report having different mental health complaints and stress and the more they report high psychological functioning and well-being (Montano et al, 2017).

Those who want productive employees with good mental health, should to a high or higher degree trust their employees' competence and motivation to do a good job, as this will increase the likelihood that the leaders (who themselves have leaders) and employees perceive high-quality trust-based LMX relationships with their leaders.

It is easier to do research on and talk about this kind of leadership than to practice it, but we have more than enough evidence to draw the conclusion that trust-based leadership works well.


  • R. Gottfredson & H. Aguinis: Leadership behaviors and follower performance: Deductive and inducive examination of theoretical rationales and underlying mechanisms. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 2016, DOI: 10.1002/ job.2152.
  • Diego Montano, Anna Reeske, Franziska Franke & Joachim Hüffmeier: Leadership, followers' mental health and job performance in organizations: A comprehensive meta-analysis from an occupational health perspective. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 2017, DOI: 10.1002/ job.2124.

This article was published in Dagens Næringsliv, 13 March 2017.

Published 29. March 2017

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