Leading change? Trust me, I know what I’m doing

Trust 1

Contributor: Dr Stephen W Hart, May 2017

Trust in our leaders has been shown to have a direct relationship to our job performance, organisational commitment and job satisfaction1. What specifically, however, is the relationship between the trust we have in our leaders and the effectiveness of organisational change? This article uses an evidence-based approach to, firstly, present data that illuminates the relationship between trust and achieving workplace change objectives. We then draw upon expertise to provide interpretative analysis of the findings from the data. Finally, guidance for practitioners is offered by exploring how to maintain and sustain trust throughout the process of workplace change.

A recent article in Forbes2 states that 63% of employees do not trust their CEO. The author of the Forbes’ article declares that ‘trust is toast’. What are the implications for workplace change in an environment where there is a crisis of trust – Is trust a key factor to consider when leading workplace change? Our research says that it is.

Analysis of the responses to our Workplace Change Survey shows strong relationships3 between trust in the people leading change and the indicators of successful change outcomes.

When asked if they trusted the people leading the change process that they were participating in, 48% of our respondents reported that they trusted their leaders whilst 29% did not trust the people leading the change that they were experiencing (please refer to Diagram 1).

diagram 1

Trust and outcomes

So, is it a big deal if people don’t trust the leaders of change? There is a strong relationship in the data between trust and whether people believe a change will meet its objectives. If trust is low, then the achievement of objectives is reported as low, if trust is high, then achievement of objectives is high (for stats geeks, r = 0.65).

Our data also shows a strong relationship between trust in the leaders of change and whether employees are motivated and feel positive about the future.

Trust and process

Diagram 2 below shows all of the factors of change where there is a strong relationship with trust in the leaders of the change (r > 0.6). Our data has also shown a strong relationship between trust in leaders and:

  • the perceived capability of those leaders
  • whether people feel their concerns are responded to
  • that the change is well planned
  • that the change progresses smoothly

diagram 2

Implications for practice

There are several implications of these findings for change practitioners. An effective change process needs to be led by capable leaders. In particular, leaders who have the capabilities required to respond effectively to the concerns of the people whilst also being able to plan and manage the change process well. Whilst this may seem obvious, our data shows that evidence for leaders having this complete combination of factors is only demonstrated in 22% of the 432 change processes studied.

Organisations need to ensure that they are placing the responsibility for leading change in the hands of capable leaders. If organisational change capability is lacking, they need to ensure that the organisation is ‘change ready’ by building the leadership capability required to support the change effort. Capable leaders then have the responsibility to ensure that they demonstrate that capability by responding to the concerns of their employees and planning and managing change effectively.

Building leader capability

‘Despite all the noise and rhetoric about resistors, perhaps the greatest saboteurs of change are organisations themselves, through their lack of investment in building comprehensive change capability.’

Leaders who are trusted are highly capable. They have the skills and knowledge required to lead change effectively. They know what they’re doing. Organisations have a role to play in ensuring that their leaders have the capabilities required to lead change. It has been known since the 1960s that leadership requires both task and relationship capability4 and yet we continue to see change programs that focus on building one of these aspects of change capability – relationship or task – but rarely both. In fact, through the 1990s to this decade, there has been a shift towards relationship factors of change capability building. Our data shows that we are now better at relationship factors of change, such as responding to concerns, than the technical aspects of planning and implementing change (please refer to Diagram 3) – although improvement is clearly required in both areas. A balanced program of change capability building is required in both relational factors and task factors. Despite all the noise and rhetoric about resistors, perhaps the greatest saboteurs of change are organisations themselves, through their lack of investment in building comprehensive change capability.

diagram 3



  1. Dirks, K., Ferrin, D. (2002) Trust in Leadership: Meta-Analytic Findings and Implications for Research and Practice. Journal of Applied Psychology, 2002 August, 87 (4), 611-628
  1. Comaford, C. (2017) 63% Of Employees Don’t Trust Their Leader — Here’s What You Can Do To Change That, Forbes, http://www.forbes.com/sites/christinecomaford/2017/01/28/63-of-employees-dont-trust-their-leader-heres-what-you-can-do-to-change-that/#20a524df7de4
  2. Evans, J. (1996). Straightforward statistics for the behavioural sciences. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing
  3. Blake, R. Mouton, J. (1964). The Managerial Grid: The Key to Leadership Excellence. Houston: Gulf Publishing Co



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