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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,
  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



Why aren’t you engaging women in your workplace change?



Is there a change initiative underway in your organisation? Is it gender inclusive? – our research says that it’s probably not.

We’ve studied over 200 change initiatives across more than 30 countries and we’ve found that women, compared to their male colleagues, have less access to information (-7.3%), less influence (-5.2%) and less opportunity to be involved (-4.0%) in workplace change.

If women are less involved and are less able to influence change, then they are excluded from opportunities and future positioning in the post-change organisation.

The fact that there is a gender gap in our approaches to workplace change perhaps shouldn’t be surprising – gender inequality permeates all aspects of our workplaces – what is surprising is that it is not acknowledged more widely. When we thought carefully about this, we came to the conclusion that we’re not aware of any workplace change plan that we’ve seen that includes a specific inclusion strategy.

Workplace change can be a time of uncertainty and anxiety but it can also be a time of opportunity as new roles open up and new directions are forged. If women are less involved and are less able to influence change, then they are excluded from opportunities and future positioning in the post-change organisation.

The chart below shows the responses by gender averaged for each of the questions asked in our workplace change survey. Female respondents have reported lower ratings for all of the questions (except for feeling positive about the future). They report, compared to their male counterparts, that they have significantly less access to information about changes (-7.3%), feel that they are less able to influence change processes (-5.2%) and feel they have less opportunity to be involved in change processes (-4.0%). Female respondents have expressed greater concerns about the capability of those leading the change (-7.5%) and also about whether the change will meet its’ objectives (-3.6%).  The most significant difference between the genders is the perception of whether change milestones are being celebrated (-12.5%). Despite these barriers to involvement, women are still more likely to be positive about the future (+2%), perhaps pointing to greater resilience.

Gender Perspectives

As leaders and influencers of change we need to ensure we take responsibility to engage our entire workforce with our workplace change efforts. To address the identified gender inequality in workplace change we need to:

  1. Ensure our change communication is gender inclusive
  2. Ensure women are equitably represented in our project governance
  3. Act to ensure women are involved and engaged with workplace change

Ensure our change communication is gender inclusive and accessible

There is (hopefully) a lot of communication that flows in times of change, some formal and a lot that’s more informal. How accessible is that communication to women? If there are formal meetings, do women feel empowered to leave their desks or workstations to attend, or are they left behind to answer the phones or ‘man’ the counter to minimise service disruption. If there is formal written communication, has it been checked for gender inclusiveness.

Inclusiveness in informal communication is particularly challenging. Do we ensure that women are included in our informal discussions on change, in corridors, lift wells, coffee shops and bars. So much of our change communication is through informal means and we need to ensure women are included in those conversations.

Ensure women are equitably represented in our project governance

Involving women in our workplace change initiatives means involvement at every level. What is the gender representation at the highest level of change governance for your workplace change initiative? Do women have a genuine voice in decision making and in setting strategic change direction? Ensure women are represented at every level of change governance and that they have an equal voice.

Act to ensure women are involved and engaged with workplace change

Some practical, actionable steps you can implement immediately:

  • Review your change project governance representation and address any inequity
  • Check your change communication for gender bias through the use of gender decoders such as this one from Kat Matfield
  • Run the Workplace Change Survey and analyse for gender differences so you have access to real-time data for your workplace change initiative

The question is not whether there is gender inequity in workplace change, the question is what are we collectively going to do about it now that it has been exposed through research.



Change is a risky business

The language of business is often framed in terms of value contribution and opportunity vs risk. As leaders and practitioners of change we need to ensure that we align with this lexicon when discussing our approach to leading change in organisations. The purpose of most change efforts is often to increase organisational value in some substantial way. There is inevitably, of course, always also risk involved that needs to be managed. What is often overlooked (or papered over) when presenting our change initiatives for endorsement are the risks associated with change initiatives and presenting those risks in a transparent way.

Risk impact is typically assessed through a risk matrix by considering likelihood and consequence.

Risk Matrix

Whilst the actual failure rate of organisational change initiatives is open to conjecture (see David Wilkinson’s ‘Common Myths of Organisational Change’) a good predictor of future success may be found in past performance. How effective have recent change initiatives been in your organisation? If we are honest with ourselves, many of us may assess the risk of the Likelihood of our change effort failing, based on past performance, as being at least ‘Possible’, possibly ‘Likely’ and even perhaps ‘Almost Certain’.

The Consequence of the change failing to meet its objectives will depend on the change initiative being undertaken. For a major organisational change effort, we are most likely to be facing at least a ‘Major’ consequence for the organisation if the change completely or partially fails.

Therefore, when looking at the risk profile of major organisational change, the evidence suggests to us that in many organisations we are facing a risk assessment of ‘High’ to ‘Extreme’ for our change initiatives.

Such an honest assessment is rarely found in initiative proposals. Benefits are often highlighted and risk often underplayed – despite the evidence of our past performance. The consequence of underplaying the risk, however, is often to our detriment and may lead to negative outcomes for our organisations and our people. We often lament that ‘management’ doesn’t provide enough support for the change initiative and/or do not engage, consult or involve our people sufficiently. Perhaps though, as leaders and managers of change, this lack of support and engagement is of our own making as we neglect to talk about the risky business of change.

The opportunity that presents itself when we talk more transparently about the ‘High’ to ‘Extreme’ risk of organisational change is that we can also talk about appropriate Risk Treatment. Risk Treatment specifies the options and actions that we can put in place to mitigate risk.

The good news is that there is evidence that points us to effective treatment that can mitigate the risk associated with organisational change.

Whilst the overall risk assessment may be ‘High’ or ‘Extreme’, we can break down the factors of risk and identify the mitigation strategies. For example:

Risk Mitigation

The mitigation strategies for each specific change will be dependent on the organisation and context. Once identified, however, these strategies can be costed in terms of time and resource. You may find that managing the risk associated with your change effort may come at some significant cost. It is a cost, however, that is necessarily required to mitigate the risk and the Risk Treatment can be justified through evidence.

Is it acceptable to your business, for example, to invest $500,000 to mitigate the ‘High’ to ‘Extreme’ risk associated with an initiative that has the potential to add $5M of value to the business?

By adopting the language of business and positioning our organisational change strategies as legitimate, evidence-based risk treatment, our change practice can add value to both our people and our organisations.

Contribute to the Workplace Change Project by completing the Workplace Change survey The link to the survey and to share with your colleagues is here:

Evidence Based Practice in Workplace Change

evidenceMy social media feeds are filled with posts that declare the solutions to almost all of my organisational and personal problems in seven or less easy steps. Apparently there are 4 steps to leadership; 7 keys to successful change implementation and a particular favourite – 14 bizarre sleeping habits of super successful peoplea. I think the proposition in the last example is that if I sleep in a sound-proof ‘snoratorium’ that I will be transformed into a super successful person. These posts have one thing in common, they don’t provide any real evidence that support their claims.

In this post, I’ll invite you to consider whether evidenced based practice (EBP) can be adopted as a more helpful approach when developing strategies to guide and inform workplace change efforts.

Evidence based practice (EBP) is best known as an approach to patient care and is used extensively in clinical settings. A frequently quoted definition of evidence based practice in medicine has been provided by Sackett1 who describes EBP as ‘the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of the individual patient’. Represented diagrammatically in Figure 1, it can be seen that evidence based practice occurs when clinicians apply their expertise to consider the best approach to patient care taking into account research evidence and the needs and preferences of the patient.


Figure 1: Evidence Based Practice in Healthcare2

The concept of evidence based practice has been extended to other disciplines including management3 and the proposition put forward in this article is that it can also be applied to the practice of workplace change (please refer to Figure 2).


Figure 2: Evidence Based Practice in Workplace Change

Figure 2 shows that Evidence Based Practice in Workplace Change only occurs when an approach to change consists of the application of expertise, using best evidence relating to organisational change, in consideration of organisational context.

Exploring each of these terms a little further:

Change expertise: Just as you would want to have a highly skilled and experienced clinician to manage your healthcare needs, EBP-WC requires highly skilled and experienced change practitioners to apply their expertise to the change process. The ‘change practitioner’ in EBP-WC may be leader/s from within the organisation and/or specialist change practitioners either from within or from outside of the organisation.

Organisational context: The expertise must be applied taking into account the values and preferences of the organisation, that is, the organisational context. Within that organisational context, the values and preferences of the workforce, customers and other stakeholders need to be taken into account.

Evidence: Perhaps the most challenging question that confronts EBP-WC is “What constitutes best evidence in workplace change?”. Identifying high quality evidence relating to workplace change is difficult and, just as in medicine4, much of what is available needs to be carefully analysed for bias and selectivity.

In future articles the concept of EBP-WC will be explored further, both in terms of its construct and also its application.


Contribute to the workplace change project – complete the Workplace Change Survey


1Sackett, D. (2002) Evidence-based Medicine: How to Practise and Teach EBM. London, Churchill Livingstone

2Duke University Medical Centre. (2016) What is Evidence-Based Practice (EBP)? Retrieved from:

3Pfeffer, J. and Sutton, R. (2006) Evidence-Based Management. Harvard Business Review, Jan 2006

4Every-Palmer, S. and Howick, J. (2014) How evidence-based medicine is failing due to biased trails and selective publication. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice 20 (2014)


a  The first two titles are fictitious but represent many such articles that come in to my social media feeds, the third title, perhaps unfortunately, is real