Nanette Fondas

Nanette Fondas

WorkLife Matters

Why the Boss's Trust Can Leave You Exhausted

It brings both real and perceived work.

Posted Dec 22, 2015

Cementing a bond of trust with the boss arguably is the most crucial relationship-building task a person encounters at work. The boss holds the keys to job assignments, performance reviews, and promotions. When trust exists, that’s a good thing, right?

Not always. According to a new study, feeling trusted by a supervisor is almost always a source of pride, but it can also be a source of stress for employees. A boss’s trust can increase an employee’s actual workload, and also increase his or her perceived workload because the employee must maintain a reputation for trustworthiness.

“The pros and cons of feeling trusted appear to cancel each other out," says Professor Michael D. Baer of Arizona State University, and lead author of the study. “Trusted employees are seen as indefatigable ‘rocks’ who can take on ever more responsibility.” A result is the feeling of emotional exhaustion—a downside of trust rarely considered, particularly today with high involvement, results-only, flexible organizations touted as the future of work. 

In “Uneasy Lies the Head that Bears the Trust: The Effects of Feeling Trusted on Emotional Exhaustion,” in the Academy of Management Journal, Baer and his collaborators survey 219 city bus drivers and conclude that trust is “a double-edged sword.” The more trusted people feel, the more they think they have a greater work load, and indeed in many instances they do have more to do during the day. Supervisors give additional tasks to the employees who they know won’t “screw it up.” And supervisors typically don’t pay attention to which employees have too much on their plates. When trust thus brings too much additional responsibility, an employee may have good reason to feel “I could stand to be a little less trusted.”

Trust is tiring, then, and managers can take note and offer additional support and resources to employees exhibiting signs of stress and burnout. One fascinating aspect of this study is its focus on bus drivers. Too often discussions of the overwhelmed workforce clocking long hours in today’s non-stop economy focus solely on professional, upper-echelon white-collar workers. This refreshing study shows that employees at other rungs of the occupational ladder can and want to achieve stretch performance, but that trust is not an automatic motivator. Bosses need to understand this nuance of even their most trusted relationships.

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