Trust and Risk Communication in High-Risk Organizations: A Test of Principles from Social Risk Research

This article explores the effects of open communication about occupational risks on workers’ trust beliefs and trust intentions toward risk management, and the resilience of these beliefs.


  • Intraorganization trust is important to occupational safety
  • Reduction in trust following lack of communication is greater than increase in trust beliefs following open communication
  • Based on the Trust Asymmetry Principle; because ‘trust is difficult to build, easy to lose’
  • Trust Asymmetry Principle i.e. negative risk information reduces trust more than positive information increases trust

Role of Trust in Occupational Risk Communication

Open communication promotes shared perceptions about importance of safety and increases worker commitment to safety procedures and policies. This leads to a reduction in workplace injuries. Open communication is defined as “complete information about difficulties and failures” (1996, p.342).

According to my understanding of the article, I have constructed a diagram:

Essentially, Risk Communication is central to Risk Management – where Trust has been stipulated as the core element. The link here I infer, is that open communication (an effective two-way dialogue) generates this trust.

Openly communicating negative risk information, however, can reduce trust or consolidate already low levels of trust.

Trust Asymmetry Principle

It is useful to derive the rationale behind the Trust Asymmetry Principle. Numerous studies have proven it is true across many contexts and risks.

The hypothesis is broken up into two forms of bias:

(1) “Negativity Bias” (Siegrist & Cvetkovich, 2001) — Individuals are influenced by negative information to a greater extent than positive information because they have more confidence in its credibility due to greater diagnostic value. The “negativity bias” has been revised to show response to negative information is moderated by existing attitudes i.e negative information reduces trust in all, but stronger in those with pre-existing negative attitudes.

(2) “Confirmatory Bias” (White et. al., 2003) — Positive information increases trust only in those with existing positive attitudes. Why? Because individuals with pre-existing negative attitudes tend to distrust positive information entirely in a confirmatory type of way.

These two forms of bias support the Trust Asymmetry Principle’s assumption that the effect of positive information on trust should be less pronounced than that of negative information.

Current Study

The article investigated the effects of the Trust Asymmetry Principle within a high-risk organization designed with a mix of between-participant factors of integrity (high/low levels) and risk information (positive/negative); and within-participant factor of baseline trust and trust in an organization following high- or low- integrity information, and how resilient the changes are following the dissemination of more positive or negative risk information.

This study is unique because it reviews the Trust Asymmetry Principle against workers’ trust beliefs and trust intentions. The results of the analysis proved that beliefs and intentions are two distinct dimensions of trust.

Trust beliefs: based on an organization’s honesty (“organizations are honest with employees”), value similarity (“organizations share the same values as employees”), and benevolence (“organizations genuinely care about employees”).

Trust intentions: based on “I wouldn’t let organizations have any influence over decisions that are important to me,” “I would keep an eye on organizations” and “I would give organizations a task or problem that is critical to me, even if I am not able to monitor its actions”.

The results of this study implies that individuals employ different biases when deciding whether to alter their judgements (trust beliefs) or behavior (trust intentions). It is a significant breakthrough in risk-associated models — suggesting that we draw on both positive and negative information (confirmatory bias) when updating our trust beliefs, BUT almost exclusively on negative events (negative bias) when updating our trust intentions.


I believe that open communication is but one way to increase trust within high-risk organizations. It is important because trust that develops from open communication is relatively resilient against subsequent information of harm – whereby workers with little trust in the first place will be strongly affected by the same degree of harmful information.

However, as the study points out, because the intention to act has a strong effect on behavior (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), beneficial effects of positive information being specific to trust beliefs can only affect behavior to a limited extent. Where workers’ trust intentions (reliance on organization) are minimally affected by good news, and seem to be biased toward bad news, the effects of open communication being able to generate substantial trust in individuals might be overestimated. In this case, the dissection of our core ‘trust’ into the two separate elements must be considered for effective risk management.

I have heard of multiple tragedies from friends who are engineers in Keppel Land. According to them when colleagues die from workplace accidents, a stand-down meeting will be conducted the following morning. The top management informs employees of the casualty, how the tragedy struck, and places emphasis on what shoud-have-been done in order to prevent the accident. Within a local context, safety measures in high-risk organizations are governed by law, making it mandatory for the organization to follow. Of course, whether or not this Safety Information System plays out effectively is largely dependent on the willing participation of the workforce. These friends have pointed out that despite open communication symbolizing high integrity of the company and solidifying trust beliefs, where negative risk information is communicated (no holds barred) – it can indeed offset trust intentions because bad news in essence, carries greater impact on emotions than good news.

As Director of a high-risk organization, how would you modify/integrate risk communication to address the concerns of your workers’ trust intentions?

-elephroll (20908686)

References: Conchie, S.M., and C. Burns. (2008). Trust and Risk Communication in High-Risk Organizations: A Test of Principles from Social Risk Research. Risk Analysis 28(1): 141-149.


4 comments so far

  1. travelrene on

    I agree with Trust Asymmetry Principle, whereby negative risk information reduces trust more than positive information increases trust, regardless of whether the organizations are high risk in nature or not.

    Take retrenchment exercise as an example. When it started off with there is a rumor of retrenchment is going to take place in an organization, the employees will start to be worry, regardless of whether there will really be retrenchment in their organization. This negative rumor serves as information which reduces their trust towards the company whereby they tend to think that company will not care about employees’ welfare, but only care about company’s performance. They may think that company will then retrench the employees in order to save cost and help in company’s profitability. The impact starts rolling even when it is at an uncertain stage which retrenchment hasn’t been implemented.

    Then, the organization’s management officially announces that there will be retrenchment taken place, say, in the following month. With this announcement, the management is trying to inform all the members that this negative information – retrenchment, is to help company save cost, in order for the company to sustain and continue operating, while most of the employees can secure their jobs. The company has considered all the consequences before taking this action, and this is one of the ways to maintain company’s operation and retain most of the employees. The employees who will be retrenched will be compensated with retrenchment package to ease their livings. Here, the management is trying to have open communication with its employees, hoping that being honest will help to gain trust from their employees, whereby it can create the belief among employees that the company is taking this step for the benefits of both company and their employees as well.

    However, the retrenchment announcement and implementation may have worsens the situation. As the negative information tends to reduces trust, it has created negative impacts to the organization. Thus, instead of increase trust towards the organization, the employees have lost confidence with the organization and their level of trust reduces. Besides, bad news usually carries greater impact on emotions than good news. The employees will believe that the company implements retrenchment is only for its own benefits, so that it can save cost and operating well; while it does not concern on employees who lost their jobs and face financial difficulties. Therefore, open communications within an organization may not necessary help in building trust within the members, especially if the issue is a negative one.

    I have never thought of I will be a director in the future, but if I will be a director, I think being in an organization, especially in a high-risk organization, risk communication or negative information need to be addressed in a careful way. Before certain major announcement or action being executed, the management has to consider all the consequences if the issue is handled in various approaches. There should be a balance between open communications and the negative effect of creating sense of insecurity. For example, if the organization tends to have a more conservative culture whereby employees will take retrenchment as a very serious issue, probably the organization can carry it out in a more personal approach. The retrenchment announcement shouldn’t be done in a very big scale and repeated too many times, as this will increase the feeling of fear within the employees. The retrenchment exercise can be carried out personally whereby the management can approach the affected employees, personally, to explain the reasons they are retrenching the affected employees, and appreciate their contributions by compensating them. This personal approach may be able to reduce the fear among all employees, while gaining the trust of the retrenched employees that the company is sincere (with management approaching them one by one, personally) and appreciate their contributions. This will in turn create the trust of employees towards the organization whereby it is trying to take care of all parties’ benefits. With the trust of the employees, I think effective risk management can be achieved in the organization.

  2. agneslpy on

    I agree with the trust asymmetry principle that trust is ‘difficult to build, easy to lose’. Trust in an organization, between workers and the organization itself, is build up slowly and through many other factors like reputation. Trust that takes so long to build can be lost overnight as well. In can be due to lack of communication, miscommunication or due to hearsay (in situation that the organization doesn’t comes out to explain).

    From the negativity bias and confirmatory bias it states that negative news affects all and especially people with negative views while positive news only affects people with positive views. Although communicating openly about negative news seems to be a ‘not-so-good’ choice, but I believe the workers in the organization would prefer hearing the company communicating accurate news rather than listening to rumors from others.

    If I’m a director of a high-risk organization, I would choose to communicate openly to my workers regarding any good or bad news. I agree with you that open communication is one of the ways to increase trust. In the case of any workplace incidents resulting in casualties, I think that by telling the workers what the incident was about, how it happened could help the organization build an image of being ‘transparent’ and accountable by not pushing off any blame. Trust among workers and organization can be built that way. If the organization do not communicate openly and keeps mum about it, rumors might be spread on news which results in even bigger impact on the organization. This may result in losing more trust compared to communicating openly.

  3. leothg on

    It is quite interesting that trust has been stipulated as the core element of risk management, and equally important in a risk communication. For myself, i feel that many disputes and misunderstanding beside for the fact of miscommunication, another reason is because of the lack of trust between related parties. Trust as mentioned in the post, is an important factor that deems to be the central core of the whole risk management.

    In a scenario where I am the Director of a high-risk organization, the best way to integrate risk communication for my co-workers is to ensure the best and safest working environment are provided for them, and to plan routine checks on different locations of the company or industry on safety measures. But what works best of all, is to be as transparent as possible towards my workers. To let them know what is the recent happenings and accidents that happened within the company, inform them of the investigation and results and what the company is doing for the affected victims and their family. To show that the company tried their best to assist, help and plan to prevent accidents to occur again.

    • uwa20908686 on

      Hi Irene, Agnes and Hong Ging,

      Thank you for your valuable point-of-views with regards to my blog post. 🙂
      I see that all of you do concur that open communication is important in high-risk organizations because it generates trust between the management and employees.

      The challenge being: openly communicating negative risk information can however reduce trust or consolidate already low levels of trust. I fully agree with Hong Ging that one of the best ways to integrate risk communication is to maintain a safe working environment at all times, to prioritise employees’ well-being especially those with high-risk jobscopes, and planning of routine checks to ensure precautive measures are in place.

      As Director of a high-risk organization, I believe that trust intentions of employees can be improved when the management displays a constant commitment to prevention. Trust intentions are based on an individual’s behavior, for example “I would keep an eye on the organization”. With solid preventive measures in place, it fulfils the employee’s need for awareness as the management demonstrates sincerity in providing for the safety of their staff. Employees will be more likely to forgive an unfortunate accident when it actually occurs i.e. seeing it as something that was difficult to avoid even with preventive measures already taken.

      This integrated method certainly beats not taking matters of workers’ safety into serious consideration UNTIL it happens, whereby open communication may then prove to be more damaging than a strategy of risk control. My conclusion therefore states that risk communication works most effectively where there is open communication of difficulties and failures to justify trust beliefs; supported by diligent precautive measures that constantly serve the employees’ trust intentions.

      -elephroll (Carol)

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