Trust during change

Written by
Alex Swarbrick

05 Sep 2016

05 Sep 2016 • by Alex Swarbrick

Behind the question is genuine curiosity and a degree of bewilderment. In a recent conversation with a senior public servant, the word she used was ‘irresponsible’. It was neither the time nor place to explore just who or what she was describing as irresponsible; the outcome? The voters? The political leaders? I chose to assume the latter, and nodded my agreement. And that’s what to Singaporeans is bewildering.

Good leadership matters here. More than anything. In Roffey Park’s 2016 Workplace Asia study, in response to the question ‘What motivates you at work?’ 73% of respondents in Singapore said ‘good leadership’. Maybe it’s not surprising. For a country that just last week celebrated its 51st birthday, ‘good leadership’ is what’s seen as the secret to Singapore’s success. 

The referendum outcome aside, seen from a Singaporean perspective, political leadership on both sides that appeared to privilege fear over facts, and personal ambition over national benefit is baffling. So now post Brexit, many Singaporeans are as fascinated as we all are in how a new leadership will take the UK through this change.

When we asked leaders in our study about their top 3 challenges, not surprisingly ‘managing change’ was number one, with managing staff morale and engagement’ and ‘balancing diverse stakeholder interests’ taking silver and bronze.

There’s another Roffey study I’ve found myself turning to while thinking about both Brexit and lesser organisational changes; ‘An employee Perspective on Organisational Trust During Change’. We know all too well just how fragile trust can be during organisational change, and post Brexit it’s a challenge sure to be keeping many leaders short of a good night’s sleep.

Roffey Park worked with three organisations to explore perceptions of organisational trustworthiness from an employee perspective. None of them had faced catastrophic failures, but at the same time each felt they had some way to go to rebuild employee trust in the organisation.

So what do we know helps?

There’s a framework we refer to in the study (Gillespie and Dietz 2009) which helpfully identifies six system factors which shape employees perceptions of organisational trustworthiness. And HR can have an influence on them all.

1.    Culture and climate – the shared culture, beliefs, values, norms, organisational stories.
2.    Leadership and management practice 
3.    Structure, policies and processes - reporting lines, rules and guidelines for decision making, HR policies, guidelines for acceptable behaviour.
4.    External governance - how the organisation conducts itself towards its outside world.
5.    Strategy - powerful messages about what the organisations real priorities are, its values, and the extent to which it seeks to act with integrity towards stakeholders.
6.    Public reputation – can employees be proud to belong to the organisation?

The economic ripples from Brexit continue to be felt globally. Investors are guarded, markets are hesitant, organisations are restructuring to withstand a slow-down, and all of that heralds protracted and deep changes facing many of the organisations we work with. 

Handled well, employee trust can withstand these changes. Handled badly, and it will cost organisations dearly and take years to recover. So five top tips for HR from our study.

1.    Identify the lurking issues. There is quite enough that can potentially derail change without tripping over issues that are already known. Getting people together to surface and explore lurking issues is an important step. 

2.    Don’t underestimate the value of genuine care and concern for people’s wellbeing. You may not be able to address everything, at every level, and all at once. But you can show you care. You can’t give certainty, but you can listen and support people dealing with their uncertainty during change. And HR needs to enable managers to provide support, care and concern. 

3.    Get out there. Being visible is vital. Senior leaders’ role modelling desired behaviours is crucial for building staff perceptions of organisational trustworthiness. 

4.    Be consistent. It is not enough to espouse desired behaviours. Inappropriate behaviour inconsistent with values must also be challenged and dealt with in a fair and consistent manner.

5.    Remember the 8 Cs of trustworthy communication in change: clarity, consistency, continuity, congruence, content, consultation, conversation and confidence in the source. Communication must also flow up, down and across the organisation. 

When we take practical steps to maintain employee trust through organisational changes, it’s more likely the change will succeed, and the stories heard around the place will begin to be different. 

And who knows, if the same principles are applied on the UK’s national stage, baffled Singaporean taxi drivers, might swap the Brexit conversation starter for something a bit more upbeat like ‘ So what about Team GBs medals’?