Who do we trust in times of change?


May 11th, 2016

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Recently I was with a group of leaders reflecting upon the numerous changes they are trying to navigate their teams through – redundancies, mergers, new roles, new processes, and of course “doing more with less”.

shutterstock_81827446We were using Kubler-Ross’ classic change curve (1) to identify reactions to the changes, both amongst the leaders themselves and their team members. As we moved from the shock and denial stages that we experience when we hear about an unexpected change, and into the blame stages, conversations inevitably turned to trust. Do we trust “them”, (there’s always a “them”, however senior we are), to look after us during change? Do we trust our colleagues to keep working with us, rather than in their own self-interest during change? Do we trust our teams to get on with their day-to-day work, rather than gossiping and catastrophising about the change? And do we trust ourselves, to lead the change as well as we can, when we are also personally and emotionally affected?

Roffey Park recently carried out some research into Employee Perspectives on Trust During Change, which also found how closely trust and change are interlinked – ask employees about trust and they will talk about change, ask them about change and they will talk about trust vice versa. The good, and not so good news for us as leaders, is that employees are influenced by a number of different factors when judging trustworthiness: the ability of the organization to meet its goals; the benevolence of the organization, through actions that demonstrate genuine care; and the integrity of the organization, through actions that consistently demonstrates moral principles. So the good news is that it is not solely down to you as a leader to build the trust of your employees, the not so good news is that actions taken by others can erode the trust you have built up – I’m sure we can all think of examples when the fragile positive climate we have carefully built with a team is shattered by a carelessly worded email from a distant central change team.

Given how interlinked change and trust are, our research recommended five areas leaders need to focus on:

  1. Identify lurking issues, through one-to-one and group conversations. Depending on your team dynamics you may sometimes need an independent intermediary so people feel really safe to open up. However you get to the issues, you need to have a feel for “what’s really going on”.
  2. Don’t underestimate the value of genuine care and concern for people’s wellbeing. You may feel there is little you can do to calm people’s anxieties during change, but taking the time to genuinely ask people how they are and really listen to their reply can be helpful.
  3. Get out there. A visible leader role-model is vital during change, although you will need to monitor what sort of impression you are giving – honesty about your reactions to the change is important, but you may need to be somewhat circumspect if your real reactions are ones of horror!
  4. Be consistent. You need to be giving the same message about the change at different times, to different people, in different places. Yes there can be different emphasis depending on the audience, but people will quickly swap stories and find out if you’re giving different messages.
  5. Remember the 8Cs of change communication: Clarity, Consistency, Continuity, Congruence, Content, Consultation, Conversation and Confidence.

Just as employees’ trust will ebb and flow during change, so will yours. As a leader of change having someone you can openly and safely discuss your reactions to the change and your feelings of trust, is also vitally important.

(1) Kübler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2014). On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss. Simon and Schuster.