When Trust Goes Bust: New Research Offers Lessons on Culture, Crisis and Employee Performance
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Professor earns Best Paper Award for insights on trust trajectory as a predictor of successes amid stresses.
New research by one of Leeds’ newest professors could play a major role in helping companies respond to the myriad challenges facing today’s workplaces.
Dejun “Tony” Kong is studying how so-called “trust trajectory”—the trend of trust development, which fluctuates based on repeated interactions and encounters—can predict a company’s performance during times of great stress, such as pandemic, economic crisis or political upheaval.
“Ten or 20 years ago, the environment was not this dynamic,” said Kong, who joined Leeds this fall from the University of South Florida. “Now, you have crises such as pandemic, globalization and challenging international relations. Many people don’t trust the government or science. We need new perspectives on trust to better understand how to move forward together.”
Throughout his career in academia, Kong has found novel approaches to trust by looking at how it’s related to other fields of management, such as negotiation and conflict resolution. In August, he earned a Best Paper Award from the Academy of Management for a conference paper looking at trust at a U.S. company that was undergoing significant structural changes.
Value of being proactive at work
Employees who were proactive and strategic were more capable of coping with such stresses, and managed to foster positive environments. But by and large, “people became very distrusting, understandably—they’re in a stressful environment and they’re worried about losing their jobs,” Kong said. “But surprisingly, their performance has less to do with the overall level of trust, and more with the trend, which is what drives their behavior. If it’s going down over time, that does a lot of damage to behavior and thinking.”
This novel approach to the dynamics of trust—and the implications, amid ongoing uncertainty at work—has the potential to change how researchers approach the topic, and how leaders improve culture. It won’t be the first time, as Kong has enjoyed a decorated career in seeking research insights in places where topics in leadership overlap, and embracing perspectives from outside of business schools. That’s helped him get published in some of the top peer-reviewed journals in business, receive many awards, and have editorial appointments and opportunities to sit on influential committees with other experts in leadership.
“One thing I’m appreciative of is that my doctoral experience was very interdisciplinary,” Kong said. “Washington University in St. Louis is a small campus—the economic department is right next to the business school, the psychology department is next door, political science and anthropology are right nearby. My mentors encouraged me to learn from different disciplines, since so much business research builds on what’s done in the social sciences. That gives me a holistic perspectives on many issues.”
In fact, that was true of one of his earliest publications, which appeared in the Academy of Management Journal. Kong remembers it well, because it was accepted to the top-tier publication after just a single round of revision, and received recognition for its strong impact.
“My mentor told me, ‘Don’t expect every submission to go that quickly’—and he was right,” Kong said with a laugh. “That paper really bridged my two research streams of trust and negotiation—which sounded very intuitive to me as a doctoral student, but the research up until then was pretty siloed.”
Another of Kong’s interests is diversity, equity and inclusion, which has become a much hotter topic in business and business schools. His DEI research and activities, together with his strong expertise in trust and leadership research, gave him a high profile as faculty director of USF’s Bishop Center for Ethical Leadership.
Seeking insights on DEI
At Bishop, he helped encourage research and thought leadership around trust, DEI and ethics. Again, rather than just consider the business case, he invited experts in humanities, social sciences, engineering and medicine to engage in leadership research, providing grants on issues like how to encourage more women to be successful leaders in every domain.
“Many of these disciplines are not closely related to business research in traditional views, but scholars in these disciplines are interested in these topics, so we encouraged them to bring new ideas,” he said.
And, ultimately, it’s work that helped him choose Leeds when deciding he was ready to move on from Florida.
“The CU Boulder mission talks a lot about DEI, which was really exciting to me,” Kong said. “It’s a part of human experience, as opposed to just a business topic. We have to get better at learning to integrate different backgrounds and perspectives into new ideas. And that requires negotiation and conflict resolution as well as trust building and repair, which leads right back to my research.”