Contextual trustworthiness of organizational partners: Evidence from nine school networks

Samantha M. Keppler, Karen R. Smilowitz, Paul M. Leonardi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Problem definition: Trustworthy partners in procurement and service relationships are an asset. How can organizations discern trustworthy from untrustworthy partners, especially early on, so as to not waste time or resources on bad relationships? Academic/practical relevance: Like prior studies, we take the perspective that organizations rarely know whether a partner is trustworthy, but also that organizations often have some evidence of a partner's trustworthiness, even before interacting. We argue a qualitative study is needed to understand how people discern a partner's trustworthiness and the consequences of initial perceptions on the relationship trajectory. Methodology: We conduct an interview-based study of how people discern trustworthy partners in a setting where doing so is challenging: the education sector. Kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools must choose outside partners to rely on for resources or services the school cannot afford. Potential partners are numerous and of variable trustworthiness. Results: We find people use contextual factors as evidence of a potential partner's trustworthiness, such as the partner's institutional affiliations, physical proximity, and relationships with other schools. Sometimes the evidence indicates that a partner acts intrinsically trustworthily, regardless of these contextual factors. In other cases, the evidence indicates a partner acts contextually trustworthily, meaning partners follow through in some conditions but not others. Intrinsically trustworthy partners provide valuable but standardized resources or services. Contextually trustworthy partners provide the competitive advantage: customized resources that are not easily accessible by other schools. Managerial implications: People in organizations identify trustworthy partners via contextual factors, which helps them determine whether a partner acts trustworthily independent of context or conditional on context. The value of intrinsically trustworthy partners derives from their low risk and high quality, whereas the value of contextually trustworthy partners derives from their willingness to customize resources or services to some - but not all - organizations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)974-988
Number of pages15
JournalManufacturing and Service Operations Management
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2021


  • Behavioral operations
  • Nonprofit management
  • OM-organizational behavior interface
  • Service operations
  • Supply chain management

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Strategy and Management
  • Management Science and Operations Research


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