Learning & Development

6Everyday Practices for Building Trust, Especially in Times of Change

When I work with our clients who are implementing an organizational change, the most critical ingredient to a successful change or transformation is always trust—trust among leaders, within teams, and across the employee culture.

However, if we find that trust is missing, eroded, and/or neglected, even before the organizational change is initiated, we know we’re in for a tough transition.

Erosion of trust is the biggest inhibitor to successful change. It can show up in many ways: gossip, fear of speaking up, negative assumptions about the change, a lack of engagement, silence, minimal collaboration, micromanagement, and loss of personal relationships.

Lack of trust can handcuff change practitioners in their efforts to align leaders and make it infinitely harder for leaders to motivate their teams.

What Is Trust, and Why Does It Matter?

Patrick Lencioni, the author of Five Dysfunctions of a Team, states that trust is the foundation of any team that needs to accomplish its goals and achieve results. He defines two types of trust:

  • Predictive trust is based on experience. We know that people will do what they say they will do because they’ve proved it to us over time.
  • Vulnerability-based trust is built when leaders comfortably and quickly acknowledge their mistakes, weaknesses, failures, and need for help.

When we engage with clients on large-scale transformations, we often find that one or both types of trust are missing. We learn more by assessing how leaders currently build trust with their teams. By employing a series of relevant skill-building exercises, we have witnessed teams transform by simply (or not-so-simply) communicating in new ways and learning to lean on each other more.

as you embark on a large-scale organizational transformation or even a smaller

  1. Communicate with greater frequency and transparency. During times of turbulence and change, employees often feel like they are groping in the dark, yet we often find leaders working in well-lit siloes! Share the light. Employees want to hear from you often and across multiple channels, so be over-transparent about progress and obstacles. Also, control the message you want employees to hear before social media or the old-fashioned grapevine creates a different narrative. It will save you a lot of time and anguish in the long run.
  2. Be authentic, real, and vulnerable. Too many corporate relationships are buttoned up, not leaving room for deeper connection and vulnerability. Unfortunately, this more outdated way of behaving inhibits trust. Speak from your heart, use your authentic voice, and don’t be afraid to let your guard down. Demonstrate the openness you want to see from your teams and employees, and share your own successes and failures; this gives others “permission” to make mistakes. And don’t forget to apologize for the slips you’ve made. 
  3. Reinforce healthy debate and disagreement. In many work environments, people are afraid to speak up for fear of repercussion or judgment. Authority creates a “natural” barrier for many to hold back their disagreements. As a leader, set the tone that productively disagreeing is welcome and important. It’s difficult to reinforce this behavior without the baseline of trust, but consistently inviting the opinions of others while establishing a safe environment will eventually enable others to speak up. Avoid shutting down others’ opinions, and incorporate feedback into the decisions. 
  4. Empower with guardrails. Most employees love that feeling of autonomy in driving their own work, but they also love direction and structure. Create “boundaries of accountability” for your team. Set clear expectations, or develop guiding principles for how work should be done. Encourage employees to experiment and get creative within that space. Support the ideas that arise, and reinforce that it’s about progress over perfection.
  5. Listen so employees know they are being heard. Remember what’s been said, and repeat it back in a future discussion. This is especially valuable in remote or hybrid work environments. The simple act of asking “What’s been adding to or zapping your energy at work lately?” will go a long way. Based on the response, you can have a real and ongoing conversation to start to build trust. But if you haven’t done the first four practices, you may not hear a full and honest answer. 
  6. Get your hands dirty. Know what’s happening at all levels of your team, and get involved. Mid-change is not the time for ivory-tower leadership; focus on building your awareness of and respect for other work styles. Be “in it” with your team, and offer support if someone needs an extra hand. Others will be inspired by your willingness to jump into the muck.

Remember that trust isn’t something you ask for. Trust is something you earn through time, attention, effort, and constant commitment. It’s as true in our personal lives as it is at work. 

Fair warning: Ignore it at your own peril during times of change. Trust me on this one.

Amanda Mausner is a Change Enablement Manager at Notion Consulting, a transformation and leadership consultancy that helps organizations harness the full power of their people to drive change, advance their mission, and unleash their competitive edge. With a background in social and behavioral science and experience in change management, career and leadership coaching (ICF-Certified), and curriculum design and delivery, she is highly skilled at solving complex problems through people, process, and technology.

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