It’s a Matter of Trust

by Patricia Benson, CPA, EdD | May 30, 2019

CPAs are skeptical. We are trained to question everything and to look for any indication that something may not be right. According to the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, this professional skepticism arises from a questioning mind and critical assessments. Our training, however, can sometimes affect workplace relationships.

Are you the type of leader who has trouble delegating? How much time out of your day is lost to critically reviewing someone else’s work? We must find a reasonable balance. Your organization may be experiencing low productivity and low morale if you have become too skeptical. You may need more trust. James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner state in their book, The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, that building trust is a process, and it begins when someone is willing to risk being the first to open up, show vulnerability, and let go of control. This requires considerable self-confidence and emotional intelligence.

Developing trust in the leader is just the beginning; successful leaders also create a climate of trust. A great way to build trust and camaraderie is through team-building exercises. Escape rooms are a great example of a fun team-building experience. This type of experience offers the opportunity for someone else to emerge as a leader by finding and interpreting clues in the room. This can help uncover leadership traits on the team that may not otherwise have been revealed in the office.

Trust is a key component of successful working relationships between leaders and followers. There are three common characteristics of trust.1 First, trust in another party reflects a belief that the other party will act benevolently. Second, one cannot force the other party to fulfill this expectation, so trust involves a willingness to risk that the other party may not fulfill the expectation. Third, trust involves dependence between the parties, which means that one party’s performance is influenced by the other’s.

Trust is contagious. When you trust others, they are much more likely to trust you. To establish organizational trust, employees must believe that management’s words and actions coincide (i.e., they are treated with respect).2

The leader-subordinate relationship is one where subordinates place a great deal of trust and confidence in the leader.3 A shared vision not only creates a common goal and direction for everyone in the organization, but also a sense of trust among all stakeholders when actions are in line with the vision of the organization. Trust makes decision-making more efficient by simplifying the acquisition and interpretation of information.4 Because trust represents a positive assumption about motives and intentions of another party, it allows people to economize on information processing. Individuals’ beliefs about another’s ability, benevolence, and integrity lead to a willingness to risk, which in turn leads to risk-taking in a relationship, as manifested in a variety of behaviors.5 In turn, these can be expected to lead to positive outcomes.6 As a consequence, knowledge from a trusted source changes the cognitive map of the receiver by directing his or her attention and search toward the domain of the transferred knowledge. Such shortcuts in knowledge acquisition can speed organizational learning, alertness, and responsiveness.7

All that being said, still be careful when it comes to trust. Trust by itself does not guarantee trustworthy behavior. In fact, it may lead to even greater fraud than if it were absent.8

Exercising professional judgment is fundamental to a CPA. However, if you trust the talented people on your team, your organization will feel more confident about its future growth.  

1 Ellen M. Whitener, Susan E. Brodt, M. Audrey Korsgaard, and Jon M. Werner, “Managers as Initiators of Trust: An Exchange Relationship Framework for Understanding Managerial Trustworthy Behavior,” Academy of Management Review, 23(3), 513-530 (July 1998).
2 Ronald J. Deluga, “The Effects of Transformational, Transactional, and Laissez Faire Leadership Characteristics on Subordinate Influencing Behavior,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 11(2), 191-203 (1990).
3 Bernard M. Bass, David A. Waldman, Bruce J. Avolio, and Michael Bebb, “Transformational Leadership and the Falling Dominoes Effect,” Group & Organization Management, 12(1), 73-87 (1987); and J. M. Burns, Leadership, (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).
4 Bill McEvily, Vincenzo Perrone, and Akbar Zaheer, “Trust as an Organizing Principle,” Organization Science, 14(1), 91-103 (January/February 2003).
5 Roger Mayer, James Davis, and F. David Schoorman, “An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust,” Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 709–734 (July 1995).
6 Kurt Dirks and Donald Ferrin, “The Role of Trust in Organizational Settings,” Organization Science, 12(4), 450-467 (2001).
7 McEvily, Perrone, and Zaheer, Organization Science, 14(1), 91-103.
8 Ibid.


Patricia Benson, CPA, EdD, is vice president of finance and operations for Harcum College in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at


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