Do your employees trust you?

Why gaining your employees trust matters during change.

Few people would argue about the importance of trust in an organization’s success. Building and maintaining employee trust can be one of the most challenging aspects of organizational leadership. Destroying the trust you have built can be done in an instant, especially during change.

Change can either destroy what you have taken years to build or it can help strengthen an existing trust relationship.1 One thing is clear, without trust it is unlikely your organizational change efforts will be successful. Trust is a necessary ingredient to build readiness for change.

The Nature of Trust

There are many definitions of trust. One definition is: “an individual’s belief that another individual makes efforts to uphold commitments, is honest, and does not take advantage given the opportunity.” 2 It signifies a belief that another person, group, or the organization will act in the best interest of the people with whom their trust has been placed.

Trust is different for people then it is for the organization. For people trust is about vulnerability. In order to trust we need to open ourselves up, let go, and believe the other person, group or organization will perform as expected. This includes the expectation that they will not take advantage of us, or the situation.

For organizations trust is about risk-reduction. The willingness of employees to take a risk, to let go of an existing current state, and move toward a proposed change increases as their trust in the leaders and the organization increases. Building and maintaining employee trust is an important risk-reduction strategy for your organization.3

Despite our understanding of the value of trust, it is still eludes many organizations. Patrick Lencioni author of “Overcoming 5 dysfunctions of a Team” states, trust is the most important characteristic for a team but it is also the rarest”.

Effects of Trust on Organizational Change

Research on the specific way trust affects an organization and change appears to be divided along two camps. In one camp are those who believe trust has a causal effect. That is the presence or absence of trust directly predicts an outcome. In the other camp are those who believe trust has a mediating effect. As a mediator the presence or absence of trust shifts or changes the effect of a previous action that then results in a different outcome.

Regardless of its specific mechanism, there is consensus—trust is a key building block of change readiness, and the lack of trust has a negative impact. Therefore, you need to understand its importance and ensure that trust is significantly high enough throughout your organization that it doesn’t undermine your change efforts. Research found that both trust in leaders and trust in peers was positively associated with readiness for change.4

Three Benefits of a High Trust Organizations that Influence Readiness For Change

Organizations with high levels of trust receive many benefits over low trust organizations. Three benefits that will influence readiness for change are:

  1. Motivation – The role of trust on motivation is interesting because it doesn’t just influence whether motivation is high or low. It influences where the motivation is directed. Highly motivated groups in organizations with high levels of trust direct their efforts toward the group goals. In contrast, highly motivated groups in low trust organizations direct their energy toward meeting their individual goals.5 When trust is high it is more likely people will proceed to build the readiness needed to meet organizational goals, even when the change may not be seen to have immediate benefits for them. However, in low trust situations it is more likely their efforts will be on maintaining the current state as it may be better serving their needs.
  2. PerceptionYour perception of any change predicts your actions and behaivour. Perceive the change as a threat and you will behave defensively. Conversely perceive the change as an opportunity and you become more open to it.6 Trust affects your perception because you use it to assess other’s future and past motives or behaviours. In high trust situations you are more likely to interpret the actions of another as positive, while in low trust situations the same actions are more likely to be perceived as negative.7
  3. Communication – The benefits of being able to communicate during change so that your messages is heard, understood, and internalized can’t be overstated. Trust plays a key role in your communication efforts. In situations of high trust employees are more likely to believe the rationale and need for the change. Alternatively in organizations where employees don’t feel they can trust management they are more likely to doubt the reasons for the change, and question the accuracy of the information.8

Three actions to increase trust in your organization:

Trust is like cash flow, it gives you options. The ability to sustain and build a high trust organization affords you a significant competitive advantage. It enables you to take risks, while at the same time reducing the risk of change. Here are three things you can do to build and sustain trust both before and during change:

  1. Demonstrate your trust in employees by creating an environment that is open, transparent, and actively involves them in problem solving. The way you interact with employees, your practices, and your organizational structures all signal your trust in employees. It’s helpful to remember, the level of trust your employees have in the organization and its leadership cannot be greater than the level of trust the leaders and organization places in them.
  2. Use active rather than passive methods of communication. Passive communication methods like email can erode, and limit your ability to build and maintain trust. Active communication, like conversation, one of the most useful but undervalued ways of communicating helps to build and enhance trust.
  3. Reduce the uncertainty and ambiguity of change. Define, document, and share a clear, concise, and concrete intended outcome for every change. Ensure employees have the time to talk about, understand and become involved in helping the organization to achieve the outcome. Research has shown that employees view leaders who take time to explain their decisions as more trustworthy.9

What are you doing to build and maintain trust? 


  1. Lines, R., Selart, M., Espedal, B., & Johansen, S. (2005). The production of trust during organizational change Journal of Change Management, 5(2), 221-245.
  2. Cummings and Bromiley (1996) in Ferrin, D., & Dirks. (2003). The use of rewards to increase and decrease trust: mediating processes and differential effects Organization Science, 14(1), 18-31.
  3. McLain , D., & Hackman, K. (1999). Trust, risk, and decision-making in organizational change. Public Administration Quarterly, 23(2), 152-176.
  4. Rafferty, A., & Roland, S. (2006). An examination of the antecedents of readiness for fine-tuning and corporate transformation changes Journal of Business and Psychology, 20(3), 325-350.
  5. Kurt, D., & Ferrin, D. (2001). The role of trust in organizational settings. Organization Science, 12(4), 450-467.
  6. Turner, D. M. (2015). Launch Lead Live: The executive’s guide to preventing resistance and succeeding with organizational change. Saskatchewan: YNWP.
  7. Kurt, D., & Ferrin, D. (2001).
  8. Allen, J., Jimmieson, N., Bordia, P., & Irmer, B. (2007). Uncertainty during organizational change: Managing perceptions through communication. Journal of Change Management, 7(2), 187-210.
  9. Lines, R., Selart, M., Espedal, B., & Johansen, S. (2005).