Trust Is Key to Successful Change Initiatives

min read
picture of office balcony overlaid with blog's title

“A relationship without trust is like a phone with no service. What do you do with a phone with no service? Play games.”

This time of year is ripe for reflection, considering the flip of the calendar and new year ahead.

In the cycle of work, it’s an opportune moment to pause and consider our working relationships. Think about the people you interact with daily: staff, peers, and supervisors. Consider those whom you rely upon, time after time after time to do their work well, communicate fully and with integrity, to readily pitch in. Those who come most quickly to my mind are among my most valued colleagues. The reason is simple: I trust them. Our work is better for it and so are we.

On the contrary, if it’s difficult to identify colleagues you can consistently rely on, perhaps there is a trust deficiency. If so, this is truly unfortunate. We rely on trust to be successful in nearly every aspect of our lives, and the workplace is no exception. The absence of trust casts a cloud over our professional endeavors. The work is hindered and so are we.

Trust is much more than just a pleasant component of healthy relationships. Research demonstrates that trust is critical to effective organizations. We can’t afford not to build trust.

The betrayal of trust in the workplace is damaging and can be insidious, eroding creativity, productivity and engagement.

“In a Watson Wyatt 2002 study, high-trust organizations outperformed low-trust organizations in total return to shareholders by 286 percent. High-trust organizations also consistently create and deliver more value to their customers through accelerated growth, enhanced innovation, improved collaboration, stronger partnering, better execution, and heightened loyalty.”
The Business Case for Trust


Workplace trust was a fascinating component in the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative online course, Success-Proof Your Change Initiative, led by Holly Morris, Director of Postsecondary Model Development and Adoption at EDUCAUSE. In the course, we examined trust from multiple angles, including competence, communications and contractual trust.

  • Competence trust is the belief that you are competent to do the things that need to be done and that your colleagues also will perform competently. Competence trust is corroborated through performance. We can attain it by acknowledging others’ skills and abilities, turning over decision-making, seeking input, helping to develop others’ skills and abilities, and through other ways of signaling respect.
  • Communications trust is the belief that both the content and process of communicating have integrity. We attain it by sharing information, telling the truth, admitting mistakes, providing constructive feedback, maintaining confidentiality, and speaking with good purpose.
  • Contractual trust is the ability to understand expectations, to offer to help, to keep your word with one another. We attain it by managing expectations, establishing clear boundaries, delegating authority appropriately, serving in mutually beneficial ways, and being consistent in making and keeping agreements.

Prior to this online course, I hadn’t considered the many facets of trust, and found them helpful in reflecting on situations where trust broke down. I recalled a scenario early in my career where trust was significantly compromised within an IT unit. We worked within silos and didn’t share information freely. We made decisions based on personal agendas more often than data. We didn’t share a common vision and competed internally for resources. We had little confidence in colleagues’ willingness to pitch in or support other teams. From my experience, a trust deficiency in any one category is problematic, but lacking trust across multiple categories leads to dysfunction, perhaps even implosion, of the organization. It is important to understand, defend, and when necessary, rebuild trust in the workplace.

Trust is key to both managing and leading change. (What’s the difference?). We cannot afford to take trust for granted. Fortunately, the process of change management as defined by Kotter lends itself to building trust. We can build trust by establishing a strong cross-functional team (step 2: forming a guiding coalition); articulating a powerful vision with an intentional destination (step 3: form strategic vision and initiatives), seeking input and buy-in (step 4: enlisting a volunteer army), and investing in training and skill building (steps 5 and 7: removing barriers and sustaining acceleration, respectively). You can learn more about Kotter's 8 step process here.

When trust is valued, built, and defended, good work follows. When trust is absent, even the most important of change initiatives can wallow in a deep ditch of resistance.

Perhaps the golden nugget of this course is found in two simple phrases designed to meet and push past resistance that every change agent encounters: What are you afraid of? and Here’s the vision!

So simple, and yet so effective. The basis of resistance is almost always fear. The solution is almost always catching the vision. Since taking the course, I’ve found myself shorthanding these two simple statements in a symbolic way when thinking through change initiatives in play:

  • WAYAO? What Are You Afraid Of?
  • HTV! Here’s The Vision!

Looking back on the work scenario mentioned earlier, I wish we would have known to apply this understanding. It’s difficult to speculate just how large of an impact this training might have had on the IT team and its broader collaborations. I now know that being able to articulate a powerful, shared vision and identify root fears inhibiting trust-building could have set us on a path to success. Being equipped with that knowledge will help me to ensure that change initiatives move forward — something that many of us know is no small feat.

The course drew heavily from the book Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships in Your Organization (Reina & Reina, 2015). The authors’ blog also conveys valuable information to improve your understanding of trust.

Sondra Smith currently serves as director of special projects for EDUCAUSE.