The surprising danger of feeling trusted by your boss

Boss, laptop, employeeStrelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design/flickrFeeling trusted by the boss can make us feel burned out and emotionally drained.

Scientists are increasingly discovering that being good at your job isn’t always a positive experience.

The latest bit of evidence comes from a study led by Michael D. Baer at Arizona State University, cited on Psychology Today, which suggests that feeling trusted by your boss can be a double-edged sword.

While previous research has found that feeling trusted imbues us with a sense of pride and ownership over our jobs, Baer and colleagues found that it can also make us feel burned out and emotionally drained — which can in turn hurt job performance.

To test this phenomenon, the researchers looked at a group of 219 London bus drivers, most of whom were men. At three points throughout the study, they asked the drivers to fill out questionnaires about their work life.

Drivers indicated how trusted they felt, indicating how much they agreed with statements like “My supervisor doesn’t feel the need to ‘keep an eye on’ me”; how proud of their work they felt; how much work they had; how concerned they were about maintaining their reputation; and how draining their work was.

Meanwhile, the researchers also asked the drivers’ supervisors to assess their employees’ performance.

According to their findings, feeling trusted did in fact make the drivers feel more proud of themselves and their work. Yet there were also a number of downsides to feeling trusted — namely, that drivers perceived a greater workload and were more worried about maintaining their reputations as star performers.

That combination of having more to do and fretting about keeping up their reputation often led to them feeling more emotionally exhausted and performing worse at their jobs.

Boss, employee, meeting, interviewUniversity of Exeter/flickrManagers can tell their employees that their professional image doesn’t necessarily hang on every performance event.

So what can managers do to ensure that their most trustworthy employees aren’t burning out?

Being aware of the potential downsides of being trusted is key. The authors write: “Simply realising that emotional exhaustion can be an issue — even for the most trusted — can open up steps for addressing it.”

One strategy, the authors say, could be making sure not to overload those employees. For instance, managers could assign trustworthy employees higher-impact projects but be mindful not to give them too many tasks.

Managers might even tell their employees that their professional image doesn’t necessarily hang on every performance event, especially stretch assignments.

Because research on the dangers of feeling trusted at work is still limited, the study authors suggest a number of paths for future investigation.

Most notably, they say that individual differences could potentially mediate the link between feeling trusted and emotional exhaustion. For example, employees who care about the organisation as a whole might be better able to deal with the extra workload that comes with feeling trusted.

Perhaps the most important contribution of this research is that it highlights a problem in the workplace that’s previously gone relatively undetected. Now that they have been made aware of this potential issue, managers can adjust their behaviour so that they don’t risk losing their top performers.

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