Trust in Difficult People: A Social Network Perspective

Sonja Opper & Na Zou, 2023, Journal of Management Studies, [published online: 23 August, 2023]

We all know people we find difficult to deal with. Some we trust despite major past transgressions, others we do not. What explains the difference? Rather than looking for explanations inside the trustor–trustee dyad, we focus on the embedding social structure. Our argument focuses on two features: network closure around the trustor and the embeddedness of the difficult contact. We test and confirm our argument using data from 384 Chinese managers. Our results show that managers who cite colleagues as difficult following a major transgression report higher trust the more the difficult contact is embedded within the manager’s network. The effect is smaller (larger) if the manager is surrounded by a rather closed (open) social network. At a practical level, our study helps distinguish between social situations that facilitate trust and those that impede trust once interpersonal conflicts have tainted a relationship.