New research shows confidence and trust in program leaders amplifies program benefits

Griffith, A. N., & Larson, R. W. (2016). Why trust matters: How confidence in leaders transforms what adolescents gain from youth programs. Journal of Research on Adolescence26(4), 790-804.

Summarized by Kirsten Christensen



After school programs are common contexts in which youth and adolescents can gain a variety of social and emotional developmental benefits. Longitudinal research has demonstrated that a strong relationship between the youth participants and the program leader is one of the strongest predictors of successful program outcomes. However, in order to develop these secure relationships, program youth must first develop a sense of trust in their program leader.

There is reason to believe that a sense of confidence and trust in a program leader has the ability to “magnify” the influence of the program, thus yielding significantly beneficial outcomes for youth. However, very little is known about how this magnification occurs, and the precise way through which trust guides and impacts youths’ experiences and learning processes throughout the program.

Through qualitative methods, the current study aimed to delineate how trust facilitates youths’ thought processes, decision making, and interactions in a program context. Additionally, the study sought to understand the ways in which trust contributes to youths’ participation and engagement in programs.



The current study collected data from a larger longitudinal study (i.e., the Pathways Project) which aimed to understand various processes associated with positive development in social-emotional skill areas. In order to increase the likelihood of observing these processes, the researchers selected youth programs that were all of high quality.

For this larger study, data was collected from youth at four time points over the course of the program cycle, or an academic year. For questions relating to the current study questions, youth were interviewed at Time 2 and 4. Youth participants in 13 arts, leadership, science, and technology programs were interviewed. A grounded theory approach was used to get at answering the research questions of interest.

Participants in the final sample consisted of 98 ethnically diverse youth between the ages of 12 and 19. Youth were first asked to identify a program leader who they trusted, and were then asked three follow up questions about how that trust influenced them. The youth were asked, a. “How has it [the trust] helped with your work and learning in the program? Can you give me an example?” b. “How do you think your experience in the program would be different, if you didn’t trust him or her?” and c. “How has this trust helped you deal with other things in your life? Can you give me an example?”



Qualitative analysis was conducted in two steps. First, the researchers evaluated youths’ reports of the benefits of trust on their thoughts, feelings, and actions. There were five main themes that emerged from the data: (1) increased use of leaders’ guidance in program activities, (2) increased motivation in program work, (3) use of leaders for mentoring on personal issues, (4) use of leaders as a model of a well-functioning relationship, (5) increased experience of program cohesiveness.

Next, the researchers focused on the specific processes that youth cited as underlying each of these benefits.  They found that “trust influenced youth to work harder and invest effort in their projects,” which ultimately led to increased work and learning (p. 794).

Specifically, the researchers were able to outline five propositions as to how trust in program leaders enhances youths’ developmental experiences in the program context:

(1) Trust in program leaders can contribute to multiple distinct beneficial processes,

(2) Trust in leaders often functions as an ‘amplifier’ – a factor that enables or magnifies beneficial processes,

(3) Trust most directly amplifies a youth’s use of the assets of leaders – their abilities, resources, and capacities for caring,

(4) Trust in leaders enhances youth’s active engagement in the developmental processes,

(5) Trust in leaders helps ‘open’ youth to beneficial experiences that they would not otherwise have.

Essentially, a sense of trust in their program leader “led youth to become more invested, work harder, and care more about doing well” (p. 794). These results indicate that youth participants perceived trust to be a moderator (i.e., facilitator and amplifier) of their motivational processes.


Discussion and Conclusion

The study findings demonstrate that trust does indeed influence interpersonal relationships with a program leader and the extent to which a program impacts youth participants. These findings suggest the importance of youths’ development of trust and confidence in program leaders, so that the benefits that youth gain from programs can be ever further amplified.

One practical implication is that youth programs should work to train staff members in trust-building skills. Additionally, program leaders should be aware that developing trust takes time, and can only happen through reliable, caring, sensitive, and honest relationships. Thus, program leaders and staff are encouraged to share different sides of themselves to youth in different settings.

Ultimately, this field of study is still in a nascent stage. More research is needed to understand these processes from a program staff perspective, and to better understand how program culture, peer dynamics, neighborhood context, and individual youth differences (e.g., age, SES, personality, mental health) impact the development of interpersonal relationships, trust, and program impacts.