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.
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?
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.