WARNING: change fails without trust

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Trust underpins the 6 foundations of change. In this article, we share 9 actionable ideas around communication, leadership and stakeholder management to help you nurture trust within your business.

Change often exists in a complex environment, which means cause and effect can only be deduced in retrospect – using our knowledge and instinct alone is not enough. To ensure your business is in the best position to navigate change, you need strong foundations around delivery, customer, value, strategy, leadership, and people – what we refer to as ChangeReady 6

Underpinning all of these foundations is trust.

At our recent ChangeReady Breakfast in Manchester which brought together leading experts in business change, we discussed how trust manifests itself in an organisation, what happens once it’s lost, and the steps leaders can take to regain trust. 

Trust removes barriers and leads to better outcomes

Trust in an organisation can be complicated and fragile. We need to maintain an unwavering focus on it to keep it safe. But when we get it right, it provides people with the psychological safety needed to be vulnerable. They will voice concerns and challenge actions and behaviours. A high level of trust makes it easier for your business to deal with resistance to change, so you can remove the barriers that block your path to success. Everyone knows what is expected of them and in return, they set expectations of what they need from those around them to be successful. 

Without trust, people struggle to be vulnerable in front of colleagues, conscious of not showing anything that may be seen as a weakness. People are hesitant to ask, or accept, help. It can drive a desire for self-preservation where people don’t want to put themselves at risk for the good of others, they look out for number one. When people don’t bring their ‘authentic self’ to work, we miss out on new ideas and creativity, and people lose faith in the organisation.

Working remotely makes it harder to address a lack of trust

The need to work remotely has had a significant impact on organisational trust. If everyone is in the office together, it’s simpler to see and identify a lack of trust, as well as address it. We miss out on the small informal connections and it’s much harder to tackle things ‘in the moment’. During a video call, we’re presented with a sea of faces so we can’t do something as basic as make eye-contact with the person we’re speaking to. We miss the unspoken indicators like body language, which means we can’t read the room well.

When we’re all together, we can more easily raise any concerns we have, or grab someone for a coffee after a meeting to talk things through informally.

It’s much easier to develop trusted relationships when we spend lots of time face to face. But even if that’s not possible, there are still ways to nurture the bonds of trust.

Provide effective communication

Not understanding why a particular change is important is a significant factor in unsuccessful change. When teams aren’t privy to boardroom discussions and all the side-conversations, they lack context. And when they don’t understand ‘the big picture’, it can feel like things are being done to them. 

Additionally, some employees can feel sceptical if their leaders have a tendency to over promise and under deliver, or to ask for input on something they’ve already made a decision on. Then it doesn’t matter what is said, the reaction will simply be “Here we go again”. 

Trust is a catalyst of good communication. If you fear the trust is lost in your organisation, focus on effective communication:

  • Tell a consistent story so it filters accurately through the organisation and doesn’t suffer ‘Chinese whispers’. Inconsistent messages confuse and destroy trust.
  • Talk about ‘what’ kind of change is necessary and ‘why’, but leave the ‘how’ up to your people. Empower them to get on with the task at hand.
  • Foster an environment where people feel they are listened to and can be successful by asking, “How can I help you?”.

Nurture strong leadership

Some leaders assume that relationships must be established before trust can evolve. While others attempt to enforce trust through arrogant statements like, “You need to earn my trust”. In a modern business, we don’t always have the luxury of time to build deep relationships in the way we have traditionally. In agile organisations, people are constantly moving between teams to solve specific business problems. 

Enlightened leaders understand they need to flip the script. They know they need to have the courage to trust someone from the beginning of the relationship. And ultimately, you need to demonstrate trustworthiness. That means having a proven track record of delivering on your commitments and living the values of the organisation.

Effective leaders during change create an environment where amazing things can happen. If you fear the trust is lost in your organisation, focus on brushing up your leadership skills:

  • Set expectations of your leaders in terms of their behaviours and actions.
  • Leverage the impact of leaders’ by talking consistently and regularly about change, even a quick phone call to recognise someone’s efforts can have a huge impact.
  • Know that trust isn’t vertical. As the Edelman Trust Barometer demonstrates, it flows from left to right.

Be mindful of stakeholders preferences 

Typically, people fall into one of two camps, either:

  • Concept-based trust: “It sounds good, let’s go for it!”
  • Evidence-based trust: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

The challenge comes when you have to manage the different dynamics. We often see CEOs tending to lean towards concept-based trust because they’re familiar with the larger visionary piece, whereas CFOs are naturally more comfortable with evidence-based trust, because they are focussed on the finer details.

Evidence-based individuals are more likely to derail your project if they’re not supported well. However, get it right, and you’ll transform them into your biggest advocates. It’s important to ensure everyone feels included and to speak their language. People with a preference towards evidence-based trust aren’t trying to be difficult, they’re trying to retain control and protect everything they’ve helped to build.

Effective stakeholder management will balance the needs of both concept- and evidence-based individuals. If you fear you’ve lost the trust in your organisation, it never hurts to go back to basics:

  • Prove the benefit of the change quickly by delivering regular packets of value.
  • Work closely with evidence-based individuals, challenging gently and constructively to create an elastic dynamic – you have to push them away first so they spring back towards you. 
  • Listen authentically. Take on the good ideas to give people authorship, and be honest and transparent about why other ideas won’t progress, so everyone feels heard.

Have the courage to trust 

During change, we need the courage to demonstrate vulnerability. To admit that you need help or you mis-judged a situation is really hard and can feel deeply uncomfortable. Once the team feels able to be truly honest and we hear phrases like ‘I want to learn from you’ and ‘I’m sorry’ you can be sure you are getting the best from your team.

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Jacqueline Shakespeare
Written by Jacqueline Shakespeare
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