Change Requires Trust, So Build It

Ella Ingram


I recently read the paper Change Recipients’ Reactions to Organizational Change by Oreg, Vakola, & Armenakis. The authors analyzed 60-years’ worth of research on how the people affected by change experiencing change, with the goals of describing the features of this body of work (like organizational contexts studied, psychometric scales used, sample sizes acquired, etc.) and finding major themes of reactions. They highlighted one implication that stood out for them among all others: “the consistent finding concerning the link between organizational trust and support for change highlights the special significance of trust in times of change” (p. 516). This implication points change agents toward trust-building as a critical tool for making change happen.

The action step emerging from Oreg et al.’s work is for a change agent is to ask herself “What strategies can change agents build trust with those who will be affected by change”? This topic is addressed occasionally in the pages of higher education leadership resources (e.g., the Chronicle of Higher Education Administration 101 series, Magna’s Academic Leader newsletter). However, it appears regularly in the Harvard Business Review. With just a bit of mental effort, academic change agents can adopt the recommended business-centric guidelines and apply them to great effect.

Robert Hurley describes seven situational factors and associated questions that can influence the Decision to Trust (also the title of his article). Security, number of similarities, alignment of interests, benevolent concern, capability, predictability and integrity, and level of communication represent factors that, when addressed appropriately, increase trust given to managers, and by extension to change agents. Let’s look at just two of these factors: “alignment of interests” and “predictability and integrity”.

When change agents work to gain trust through alignment of interests, they must sincerely engage in understanding the interests of the people their work will affect. Superficialities will not suffice in this arena. Change agents need to know what things their colleagues need to be successful in their goals. Then, ask yourself “How can I bring my work into alignment with these desires?” For faculty, a major goal is often related to professional productivity, things like papers, conference presentations, invited talks, etc. Can your change project create opportunities for this goal to be met? Do you have social capital emerging from your change work that could be contributed to colleagues? For example, if your change efforts increase the funding available to your area, offer to sponsor professional work that simultaneously advances productivity and the interests of the project (e.g., a publishing effort about the change project itself, supported by research assistants, software tools, or a writing retreat). Finding points of alignment is a way to say to people “We are in this work together and can both be successful”.

Predictability and integrity begin with doing what you say you will do. People need to know that your words have weight. Statements like “I’ll send you that article” or “I’ll invite you to that important committee meeting” or “I’ll champion your application for promotion” are implied promises that the person you promised will remember. Deliver on your promises when you say you will, or don’t make them. Other types of implied promises include accepting an appointment request (so don’t miss a meeting without lots of notice), agreeing to contribute to a blog series managed by a close colleague (so don’t blow off the deadline), and offering to buy lunch out next week for a junior colleague who asks mentoring-type questions (so don’t put it off for two months). These example spring to mind because I’ve done all of these trust-harming behaviors. No more. Change agents can’t afford to have their predictability and integrity questioned.

Alignment and integrity are just two important ways a change agent builds trust. A future post will look at the other situational factors that contribute to trust-building.

Some features that affect trust can’t be influenced by the change agent. Risk tolerance, level of adjustment, and relative power of the person giving trust will all influence how much trust she puts in you as the change agent. But, these three factors can be counterbalanced by the situational factors that influence a person’s trust in the change agent. By asking the trust questions regularly, change agents will find that they are led to act in trust-building ways.

So, what will you do in the next day, week, month, and year to align interests, be predictable, and demonstrate integrity? Take action now; you won’t regret it.

Hurley, R. F. (2006). The decision to trust. Harvard Business Review, September, 55-62.

Oreg, S., Vakola, M., & Armenakis, A. (2011). Change recipients’ reactions to organizational change. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 47, 461-524.

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