In my article on Organisation Change's Magic Ingredient: Trust, I looked at the importance of trust in successful change programs and at the impact of low levels of organisational trust. In this article, I will discuss what trust is. How is it developed or destroyed? And what are the implications for organisational change?
We all intuitively know when there are low levels of trust in an organisation and when it's high. But what does it really mean? In essence, trust is a willingness to be vulnerable to another, based on the expectation that the other will meet their commitments, regardless of the ability to monitor or control that other party.
Trust relies on two elements:
- credibility, or the perception that you can do what is required, and
- integrity; that you will do what you say.
Organisational trust exists when employees trust an organisation's leadership team to act competently and in the best interests of the organisation. Thus, trust in the organisation's leadership develops when they are perceived to be credible and seen to act with integrity.
It is often believed that trust is something you either have or don't have; that it is an innate personality trait. But, in his book, The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey says, "...trust is not some soft illusive quality, that you either have or you don't; rather trust is a pragmatic, tangible, actionable asset that you can create."1 Put simply, trust is developed when you do what you said you would do.
Organisational trust develops when there is consistency between the organisation's words and actions and when the organisation's leaders demonstrate credibility. Open, honest communication is one of the keys to building trust.
Organisational trust is damaged when leaders fail to act with credibility and integrity. Often called "toxic management behaviours", micromanagement, lack of communication and inconsistent decision-making are all trust breakers. Often, this is unintentional. Decisions are poorly communicated, resulting in misunderstandings. Changes aren't well planned and communicated. The rumour-mill knows more than the employee's direct manager. Leaders are good at "talk the talk" but fail to "walk the walk", generating inconsistency between the messages and the actions.
How many of us can relate to this story?
By the time we were acquired, most managers were change weary. We'd been through round after round of restructuring, new business models and cost cutting. We'd lost faith in our executive team and were despondent by the loss of culture we'd once taken pride in. The acquisition was a shock and we feared the worst. At first, the leadership team was reassuring; we were valuable employees, our knowledge was an asset, we wouldn't be disadvantaged by the changes. But what we experienced was very different. We came to realise there was an immense gap between what we thought were rock solid commitments and the reality of leaders' actions. We did not feel trusted and we no longer gave trust back.
Poor communication. A lack of transparent decision-making. Inconsistencies between leaders' speeches and actions. Trust was quickly broken in this organisation and, now many years later, it is still not fully rebuilt.
For organisational change managers, the implications are clear. Before embarking on any major organisational change, the level of trust across the organisation should be assessed. It's important to understand the source of any trust issues and any historical events that have contributed to the current levels of trust. This information should be used when assessing the organisation's readiness for, and capability to, change. Change management strategies should include strategies that will rebuild, or strengthen, organisational trust.
Most importantly, change managers should recognise when trust issues will be a significant barrier to change, or even exacerbated by a new change initiative, and adapt their approach accordingly. Simply 'pushing-ahead' with a change in the absence of the required levels of organisational trust should be avoided, as this will inevitably result in even lower levels of trust.
Organisational trust is the key to success in major transformational change. By focusing on developing a high-trust, engaged and collaborative culture, organisations will achieve a significantly higher return on their investment in change management capabilities. Change managers can play a significant role in helping organisations rebuild trust through strategic change programs.
- Covey, Stephen M. R. (2006). The Speed of Trust, Free Press, New York, p. 2.
Joan Dobbie is the Principle Consultant at Beyond Strategy Consulting and a highly successful business transformation leader. She is passionate about enabling people and businesses to achieve their vision, through the development of individual competencies, and organisational capabilities aligned to the business vision and strategy. To learn more about how Beyond Strategy Consulting helps businesses turn their visions into practical strategies, execute strategy and generate outstanding results visit www.beyondstrategyconsulting.com.au
For practical help with your change program, check out our resource kit, Managing Change in the Workplace. This comprehensive guide is intended for everyone expected to lead, manage and implement change. Visit the Managing Change in the Workplace information portal to find out how to download the free Introductory Chapter and start using this practical change management guide and workbook today.