Organisation Change’s Magic Ingredient: Trust

Why do some organisations excel at change while others fail miserably, even when they adopt the latest advice on managing change?

We thought we’d done everything possible to ensure the success of the transformation program:

  • Sense of urgency? Tick. Everyone could see there was a compelling need to change if the organisation was to succeed. Employees were frustrated with the current operating model and desperately wanted change.
  • Guiding coalition? Tick. The program had a dedicated and experienced senior executive sponsor. Every member of the executive team supported the vision for the future.
  • Clear vision? Tick. The vision for the future state had been clearly defined and communicated. Senior executives and employees were excited by the vision of a better future.
  • Empowered action? Tick. The program had the funding, resources and empowerment to overcome obstacles and get things done.
  • Change management capability? Tick. We had an experienced transformation team using mature program and change management practices.

So what went wrong? In hindsight, the warning signs were there right from the start. We’d planned our communications carefully; we understood the importance of early, frequent communication, from the right people. But resistance seemed to grow day by day, with each new wave of communication being met with growing cynicism. The issue was the credibility of the messengers, not the quality of our messages.

This organisation had operated in a climate of control, blame and fear for too long. There was a deep-seated lack of trust and an overwhelming perception that the senior leadership team was dysfunctional and operating in silos.

Trust is the magic ingredient that makes organisations great. With high levels of trust come strong employee engagement and a collaborative, supportive work environment. In high trust organisations, people look for ways to make change work, to help each other, to solve problems. Kotter said, “In highly successful change efforts people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thoughts. Feelings then alter behaviour sufficiently to overcome all the many barriers …”

Without trust, people will view change with cynicism, or even fear, and will be reluctant to try new things for fear of being wrong and will see unsolvable obstacles to change. In these organisations, your change plan will be ineffective; employees will not believe what senior leaders are saying, preferring instead to believe their peers and rumour.

In hindsight, our organisational readiness analysis should have alerted us to these issues, and we should have spent more time analysing the organisation’s culture and understanding the implications for our change program. Most change readiness assessments focus on issues such as: Is there a clear and compelling need for change and a sense of urgency? Is there a clear vision for the future? Does the sponsor, or the guiding coalition, have the ability to successfully champion the change? How much other change is occurring? Does the organisation have the required management competencies? Are sufficient funding and resources available?

Organisational trust isn’t explicitly addressed by any of the well-known change management approaches. However, as we found, trust is central to successful change. Change managers need a deep understanding of the nature of trust and its role in organisational change. We need to integrate the latest thinking on trust into our change readiness assessments and into our change management plans. Organisation change is complex and, despite the best efforts of change practitioners, many change programs fail. It seems that trust may be at the heart of many failures. Unfortunately, a failed change program is almost certain to further erode trust within the organisation. Change managers can help organisations rebuild trust through strategic change programs. Analysis of the current organisation culture, including trust, and the integration of change strategies that build a high trust, engaged and collaborative culture should form a key part of every change strategy.

Organisation trust is the key to success in major transformational change. Organisations can no longer afford to ignore the lack of trust within their culture. By focusing on developing a high trust, engaged and collaborative culture, organisations will achieve a significantly higher return on their investment in change management capabilities.


Originally published in as Organisation Change’s Magic Ingredient: Trust.