Operationalizing trust, reliance, and dependence in business relationships : responding to the ongoing naming and cross-level problems

Zhi Zhong Zhang, Eric Shiu, Stephen Henneberg, Peter Naude

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose: This article is to test the proposition that the 3 conceptually related constructs of trust, reliance, and dependence are distinct from each other and to test the proposition that the quality of business relationships can be measured with a formative index incorporating trust and reliance.

Methodology/Approach: The authors' propositions are tested with a survey sample of 221 firms in the U.K. construction industry. Exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses are used to analyze the survey data.

Findings: The independence of the 3 focal constructs of trust, reliance, and dependence is confirmed. The formative index is found suitable for evaluating the level of relationship quality in which reliance carries more significant weight than trust.

Research Implications: The separation of the overall construct of “trust” into trust at interpersonal level and reliance at interorganizational level, as found in this study, overcomes the problem existing in past studies that researchers rarely specify at which level trust operates. The clear conceptual distinction between reliance and dependence as found in this study implies that although both operate at the organizational level, they do not have overlapping boundaries. The finding that reliance is a more important impact factor than trust in constructing the formative index supports the notions that reliance is a necessary and sufficient condition for developing sustainable business relationships, and trust is an insufficient condition to sustain an ongoing business relationship.

Practical Implications: Reliance sets the keynote of the business relationship. In contrast, trust as the interpersonal variable only acts as the facilitator to create a favorable social environment. Nevertheless, both trust and reliance have a significant and positive weight in the relationship quality index formed. This means that a business relationship with high levels of both trust and reliance is particularly resilient and stable and is the most successful and desirable one which is frequently oriented toward the long run.

Originality/Value/Contribution: The confirmation of the difference between trust and reliance makes an important contribution to the study of trust in business to business marketing by showing that what has traditionally been treated as theoverall construct of trust can and should be regarded as being made up of two separate constructs: interpersonal trust and interorganizational reliance. The difference between reliance and dependence as an additional finding makes another important contribution by providing conceptual clarity of the two constructs and confirming that there is no overlapping boundary between them. The formative index and the relative importance of its components are another important contribution of this study.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)193-225
JournalJournal of Business to Business Marketing
Issue number4
Early online date11 Oct 2013
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 11 Oct 2013


  • business relationships
  • trust
  • reliance
  • dependence
  • industrial marketing
  • business marketing


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