What goes around, comes around: Trust in the Context of multicultural Leadership: An empirical interpretative study of trust as a situated relational process between leaders and their employees with bicultural backgrounds

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    Studies on organizational trust show that trust-based work relations lead to a variety of beneficial outcomes for both the employees, leaders, and the organization at large. At the level of leader-employee interactions, trust is said to be valuable for the quality of communication and problem solving, organizational commitment, and team performance.
    While scholarly work on trust points to the beneficial outcome of trust, the question as to how trust is built still occupies organizational scholars. Especially research on the influence of cultural factors on trust is still very scarce despite the fact that globalization has led to an intensification of intercultural work relations.
    Considering the relatively scarce knowledge on the relationship between leadership and trust processes in general and in small and medium sized companies (SMEs) in particular, this study aims at enhancing the understanding of micro-processes of situated relational trust building in the context of multicultural leadership. In order to do so, this research addresses the interplay of structure and agency as underlying yet overlapping causes for the process of situated relational trusting between Danish leaders and their employees with ethnic minority Turkish backgrounds in one Austrian and two German sales subsidiaries of a SME I called “ESAG”.
    This research takes a longitudinal interpretative case study design embedded in an overall hermeneutic approach to trust building between leaders and employees in the context of multicultural leadership. This study aims to enhance our understanding of trust building in leader-employee relations situated in real organizational contexts (fields) and influenced by their situated interactions (practical sense and practical evaluation), cultural backgrounds (cultural habitus) and understandings (dispositions), past experiences and present sense-making (reflexivity and tacit maneuvers).
    The main purpose is to discover the leaders’ and employees’ interpretations and experiences of trusting alongside their perceptions of why and how their trusting changed through time. Therefore, this research addresses the following problem formulation: When and how does trust emerge from multicultural leader-employee relations and its situated processes over time?
    Three research questions guide the examination and analysis of these relations which are researched from both the perspective of the leaders and the employees, thus empirically examining interpersonal processes of situated relational trust from the perspective of both interactants.
    The study is conducted as an embedded case study of situated leader-employee relations and their ‘practices’ of trust building in the context of multicultural leadership in a SME headquartered in Denmark. The main attention is on three Danish leaders and their relationships with various employees, most of whom have ethnic minority Turkish backgrounds. Hence the focus is predominantly on trust-building between individuals (Danish leaders and their predominantly none-Danish bicultural employees) which however also cut across the subsidiary and departmental level at HQs.
    The study draws primarily on qualitative empirical material, i.e. exploratory and semi-structured interviews, participant observations, informal conversations and interactions alongside organizational texts. The qualitative hermeneutical analysis inspired by Bourdieu’s field analysis shows that the ethnic Danish leaders’ and the ethnic minority Turkish employees’ cultural habitus is developed during their upbringing in diverse societal fields and their employment in ESAG’s diverse subfields. The analysis reveals that this has an essential influence on the organizational actors’ understanding of what present reasonable and legitimate sales and work practices in the field of ESAG. Based on a hermeneutic approach to attribute and causation coding and resulting form a field analysis inspired by Bourdieu, this study shows that trusting is influenced by the organizational members’ struggles for specific capital as well as their individual capital portfolio.
    Seeing the employees’ and leaders’ different volumes of capital portfolio and their diverse positions in the field of ESAG highlighted their power differences as well as these elements influence on what agents understood as reasonable practices. The analysis concludes that both leaders and employees would trust each other only if trusting was tacitly understood to be reasonable.
    In order to understand whether or not trusting was perceived as reasonable, the concepts of field and capital and especially symbolic capital were found to be useful to shed light on the agent’s tacit perception of ‘risk and uncertainty’ seeing that misplaced trust could lead to a reduction or loss of a certain valued species of capital. This study highlights the importance of the connection between agents’ specific capital portfolio, their positioning within a certain field (objective and subjective power), their understanding of the given field’s valued capital (symbolic capital) and their tacit decision to trust. Furthermore, the use of Bourdieu’s concepts enabled me to also describe and analyze power structures beyond the organizational boundaries and shed light on their influence on the organizational actors’ practices such as trusting.
    This study suggests that trusting could be fostered in leader-employee relations where both agents would support the accruement of the other’s specific species of symbolic capital. While this finding proposes that trust could be built in similar ways across perceived differences, this study also found that the tools and potentials employed for enhancing each other’s symbolic capital differed according to the agents’ habitus and their position in the field of ESAG. It was found that especially incorporated cultural capital and symbolic power influenced how trust would and could emerge from multicultural leader-employee relations.
    Based on this study’s findings, suggestions for further research and practical recommendations for trust building and maintenance in multicultural leadership are proposed and limitations discussed.
    Original languageEnglish
    PublisherAalborg Universitetsforlag
    Number of pages324
    ISBN (Electronic)978-87-7112-769-0
    Publication statusPublished - 2016
    SeriesPh.d.-serien for Det Humanistiske Fakultet, Aalborg Universitet


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