Why women view trust differently

Selin Kesebir and Judy Qiu on how gender differences shape the way we build relationships at work and beyond

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In 30 seconds:

  • Women and men have different interpretations of what it means to trust someone.
  • Being able to self-disclose is more essential to women’s understanding of trust.
  • Women are more sensitive to benevolence when forming interpersonal trust judgments.
  • Disclosure-based trust is associated with higher relationship quality and wellbeing.

Some of the most interesting questions in business aren’t strictly about business. Rather, they address broader human truths and the impact these have on life, work and everything in between.

For example: how do differences in the way women and men build trust affect their workplace relationships? Why do those differences exist in the first place? And, crucially, what can they tell us about building successful, harmonious organisations?

Selin Kesebir’s research interests include cooperation, competition, gender, inequality and cultural transmission. In her role as Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, she teaches Executive Leadership and Negotiations. Together with fifth-year PhD student Judy Qiu, Dr Kesebir has recently published a report, Gender differences in interpersonal trust: Disclosure behavior, benevolence sensitivity and workplace implications, which examines the impact of gendered socialisation experiences on men and women’s ability to build trust in the workplace and beyond.

They propose that women are not only far more likely than men to use self-disclosure as a tool for building trust, but that as a result, women value ‘benevolent’ traits such as sensitivity more highly than men do.

For Dr Kesebir, this interaction between the personal and the professional has always been fertile ground for research. “I’m a social psychologist by training. So what’s interesting to me is how we see human relationships in professional settings, as these settings naturally impose some constraints on relationships. Everyone in an organisation is trying to achieve their own goals, as well as working towards collective ones. It’s a fascinating mix of co-operation and competition.”

How does she feel gender differences interact with these dynamics? “Gender differences are as important and as ingrained in us as cultural differences,” she explains. “We talk about the impact of culture clashes, but gender clashes are just as disruptive. That was our motivation for the paper; looking at how these differences can complicate work relationships.”

Qiu is keen to point out that questions about the more human aspects of organisations offer us insight into key business concerns. “Fundamentally, relationships are the foundation of any workplace. We often talk about employee performance and other ‘objective’ metrics, but the quality of employees’ relationships also has a large effect on organisational life, employee commitment, turnover – many of the things we care about.”

She believes that research like this is key for uncovering best practice. “You want to know how to make organisations better, or workforces more effective? Look at their people.”

Developing a hypothesis

Their interest in the topic of trust and gender was sparked by a pattern Qiu had noticed in both personal and professional settings. “We observed that women seem to care more about others’ benevolence,” she explains. “So we started asking why traits such as sensitivity, honesty and compassion would be more important for women when building relationships.”

Considering these questions forced the pair to start asking broader questions about how women view trust more generally, and how they build trusting relationships. “Essentially, we wanted to know why the other person’s benevolence was so key – what does that tell us about how women behave in their relationships?”

For Dr Kesebir, it makes sense that those who are more predisposed to revealing sensitive information would also be highly concerned with the benevolence of whom they are disclosing to. “If women build trust by sharing information about themselves, they need to know that the person they are sharing that information with won’t use it against them. There is an inherent vulnerability in sharing our experiences, our thoughts and our feelings.”

It’s this vulnerability that Dr Kesebir believes motivates women to carefully consider a person’s benevolence before sharing personal information with them in order to build trust. “Women need to know that, when they do disclose, they can expect a positive response and be confident that nothing they’ve shared will be used against them.”

Although the research investigates these patterns in a professional setting, Dr Kesebir believes they begin long before we enter the workforce. “Even as children, there is more self-disclosure amongst female children,” she explains.

The methodology: how they proved their theory correct

The research comprises four studies, for which the team used a variety of methods. For the correlational studies, the researchers asked samples of working people about their real-life relationships and their willingness to engage in disclosure behaviours with co-workers. “This gave us the confidence in our hypothesis and that these gender differences really are playing out in organisations,” Qiu says.

The research also uses experimental data. Participants were asked hypothetical questions that required them to define the traits they look for when deciding whether or not a person is trust-worthy. Perhaps unsurprisingly by this point, they found that women consistently rated benevolent traits as more important.

But it’s their final study which Judy feels is their most ambitious. “As a PhD student myself, I understand how key the relationship between student and advisor is. With this in mind, we obtained data from 2093 of PhD students across 15 different disciplines and in different stages of their careers, asking them to rate their advisor’s benevolence and how much they are willing to disclose to their advisor.”

The results were clear; female PhD students are more satisfied with their chosen advisor and report greater wellbeing in graduate school when they believed their advisor to be benevolent, as this allows them to feel comfortable disclosing and therefore more able to build trust. The reverse implications are also important. “We’re talking about the difference between someone wanting to quit their programme, or completing a PhD”, Judy points out. “That’s a huge life decision.”

What about the men?

If women build trust through these acts of sharing, what does this mean for men? For Qiu, this is an interesting lingering question. “We didn’t directly test the alternative ways in which men build trust, as that was outside of the scope of our research. We don’t have any evidence to say ‘men do X’, but we can confidently say that they do not value benevolence as highly as women.”

Despite these differences, there are some similarities between women and men when it comes to trust-building. “Another element of trust-building, especially in professional settings, is competence. You trust someone because they have a certain set of skills or attitude that means you can rely on them”, Qiu says. “But we found no clear difference in how highly women and men rated these traits.”

What does this mean for organisations?

The findings of the research are clear – and open up many questions for organisations looking to build a positive culture of trust. Dr Kesebir says “First, we just wanted to see if we could conclusively show that women and men build trust differently. Even just calling attention to this difference is a good first step. It makes it clear that we shouldn’t assume everyone has the same needs and preferences when it comes to building trust.”

What would she suggest leaders who are hoping to facilitate trust-building amongst their employees take from the research? “We aren’t suggesting any specific interventions at this stage, but even just keeping remembering that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to building trust could go a long way.”

Qiu agrees: “As a culture, we’re currently talking a lot about authenticity and a willingness to make yourself vulnerable at work. What I hope this research adds to the conversation is an understanding of the different approaches individuals take to do this, and how that can be impacted by gender.”

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