Editorial: Collegial trust: crucial to safe and harmonious workplaces

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For many of us, participating in full-time employment means we spend more time with the people we work with than with those nearest and dearest to us. Therefore, the quality of our working lives is at least partially contingent on the quality of the relationships we have with our colleagues in the workplace. These relationships can help us cope with all manner of trials and tribulations that can beset our working lives. The quality of our collegial connections can mean the difference in feeling connected and supported, or isolated and marginalised when faced with workplace stressors. Most of us know when we are participants in positive collegial relationships and how it feels to be supported and, probably, many of us also know how it is to feel marginalised or unsupported in the workplace.

What makes for helpful and effective collegial relationships? While many factors contribute to positive workplace associations, trust is a crucial element in positive relationships of all types. In the workplace, trust has been associated with job satisfaction, organisational effectiveness and patient safety (Firth-Cozens 2004). In the health care sector, trust is particularly important. The very nature of therapeutic relationships between patients and their health providers are dependent on trust. However, colleagues in health and other workplaces also need to be able to trust one another and the organisations they work for, and should be able to place trust in the essential fairness and equity of organisational processes.

Robertson (2005) described three types of trust in the workplace. These are personal, strategic and organisational trust. These three forms of trust refer respectively to the confidence employees have in their managers, their leaders to make the best strategic judgments and their employing organisations. All these forms of trust influence the quality of the working environment and contribute to the ability we have to be confident in our employing organisations, the processes we work with and the systems we work in.

Trustworthy organisations are said to have certain characteristics including less bureaucracy, opportunities for staff participation in decision making, open communication, strategies to ensure procedural fairness for individuals and positive teamwork (Firth-Cozens 2004). Organisational culture and the importance of adopting a stance of inclusiveness and value for staff are also identified (Firth-Cozens 2004). Leaders and managers contribute to organisational trust through acting with integrity to implement policies in ways that promote fairness and equitable distribution of resources, are seen to be fair and consistent in decision-making, demonstrate competence in managing difficult situations, provide equitable opportunities for participation and follow through and meet the obligations associated with their roles (Firth-Cozens 2004). On the other hand, a climate of mistrust thrives when leaders and managers do not act with competence, fairness or consistency.

While there is a considerable body of work around the role of organisational trust, there is considerably less on collegial trust. Collegial trust is a form of personal trust that relates to our colleagues and refers to the expectations that they will behave professionally, work with integrity and do the things they say they are going to do, or the things we can rightfully expect them to do (such as follow established protocols etc). Nursing, in particular, has a real dependence on collegial trust – when a colleague says they have assessed a patient, have attended care of a patient such as monitoring vital signs, or undertaken pressure or wound care, for example, we need to be able to accept them at their word. We need to have confidence that these have in fact been attended and performed in accordance with accepted protocols.

There is also a need for confidence that clinical errors will be reported. If people are to disclose errors, they need to trust the inherent fairness of relevant organisational processes (Firth-Cozens 2004). However, in addition to trust in organisational responses and protocols, reporting of errors also requires collegial trust. There needs to be trust that colleagues will respond in a supportive way and that people will not be marginalised or isolated because they have made an error.

Thus, collegial trust is essential to a smooth and safe work environment and shapes the relationships we have with our colleagues in the workplace. The need for positive and strong collegial relationships can be seen in the literature. Collegial trust is often taken for granted and not explicitly identified as a feature of collegial relationships. However, trust and mutual respect have been identified as the very ‘essence of colleagueship’ (McCormack & Hopkins 1995:164) and trust in colleagues has been cited as a key element of successful teams (McCallin 2001). Furthermore, trust is implicit to professional relationships that are characterised by honesty, respect and mutuality, such as those described by Sullivan et al. (2008).

Breaches of trust can take many forms, including corrupt or dishonest behaviour, misrepresentation, misuse of resources, failure to provide agreed and essential resources and failure to provide a safe and secure working environment. Although not specifically mentioned in many of the discourses around workplace violence, bullying, mobbing and harassment, many of the acts that comprise these workplace violations, by their very nature involve breaches of collegial trust (see for example, Dilek & Aytolan 2008). Furthermore, many breaches of collegial trust are even more subtle than those articulated in the workplace violations literature, and may be invisible to all but those experiencing them.

While trust can be difficult to establish, it is very easily destroyed. Firth-Cozens (2004:60) commented that ‘organisational trust is a fragile thing, broken more easily than it is mended, easily damaged by disconfirming acts’. Similarly, once collegial trust is breached, it can be difficult to repair and may never be fully restored. Breaches of trust can cause people to feel betrayed and angry and can be emotionally damaging. They also have the potential to be antecedent factors to more overt types of workplace violation. Continued breaches of collegial trust will injure and spoil collegial relationships, alter and harm the workplace and even threaten the ability of organisations to meet their strategic goals.

Trust is central to so many aspects of our personal and professional lives. Relationships are ruined and people leave their employment because of breaches of trust. Collegial trust is a precious thing. It should be privileged and prized. Rather than try to fix it once broken, it is far better not to damage it in the first place.

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