Trust in Leadership – One Key Factor During Organizational Change

Key Points

– Employees who trust their leaders may feel more committed, more satisfied, and more likely to stay

– Trust in leadership helps organizational change because it can create a collaborative environment where people share their knowledge

– Leaders can build trust by making processes fair and transparent, treating people equally, and allocating resources in an equitable way

Change is a constant in large and small organizations. Unfortunately, not all change management programmes are successful, and not all employees are on board with change. Human Resource Management in 1995 reported that managing change was considered the most important skill across 2,000 HR managers, helping their success more than HR and business knowledge. Change management practitioners in Forbes and Strategy + Business claim that leaders are important for successful organizational change – but is this true? And if leaders are important, how do leaders gain their employees’ trust to create the change they need? More fundamentally, what do we know about trust in leadership? We will explore these questions below.

What is the Evidence for Trust in Leadership?

At ScienceForWork, we have covered trust in teams and how trust relates to psychological safety. In a leadership context, trust means that employees expect their leaders to treat them well, and, as a consequence, are comfortable being open with their leaders. In 2002, Kurt Dirks and Donald Ferrin collected research on trust in leadership from over 27,000 people in 106 different studies. They found that trust works differently for immediate supervisors and C-suite leaders, but in both cases, trust matters.

Why Does Trust Matter?

The research paper’s authors say that employees’ trust in their leader is based on mutual care and concern. Employees who trust leaders more are less likely to intend to quit, they tend to believe information from their leader more, and they seem to commit to company decisions more than if they don’t trust their leader as much.

The researchers found higher job satisfaction and higher commitment to the organization were both linked to higher trust in leaders. Companies that engage both their management front line and their C-suite executives in the change process can impact employees’ trust and commitment.

Trust in Leadership
What Leads us to Trust?

Who do we mean when we say “my leader”? The link between trust and important people metrics sometimes depends on how far up the corporate ladder the leader is. People who felt the organization supported them were more likely to trust their company’s C-suite leaders. Yet it seems there was no relationship between direct supervisor trust and support from the organization. Executives can show the company’s support by communicating the impact of organizational changes on the employee’s day-to-day work and sharing how the company will help employees adapt.

Leaders who provide structure and are considerate to each employee tended to be trusted more than leaders who did not – these behaviours are linked to transformational leadership, a style of leadership that is more hands-on and considerate than laissez-faire leadership, among others. Not surprisingly, employees who felt their leaders treated them fairly, followed fair processes, and involved them in decisions trusted their leaders more. So a more transformational leadership approach could be helpful if your organizational change involves redesigning processes.

Trust in Leadership 2

Takeaways for Your Practice

Employees who trust their immediate boss have higher job satisfaction, more commitment to the company, and feel they are treated more fairly in processes and decision making. Employees who trust their business leaders feel more committed to the company, feel the organization supports them more, and feel that leaders fairly allocate resources, treat others well, and follow procedures transparently. Trust works in different ways, depending on where you are in the organization. For this reason, C-suite leaders should consider focusing on different elements of trust-building than managers closer to the bottom of the organizational hierarchy.

 As a direct supervisor, you can increase trust during times of change by:

  • Treating people fairly and explaining the background behind changes. For example, if the company is implementing a new safety reporting system, the reporting process will change in X and Y ways, and each department will have a specialist in this technology on hand to help people make the change
  • Involving your team in decision-making, including soliciting votes and feedback through short surveys
  • Using fair processes and making the steps clear, so your people see you as more legitimate and trustworthy

 As a C-suite leader, you can increase trust during times of change by:

  • Accentuating the fair process effect in your organization by showing the steps involved in the change
  • Tracking resources to make sure they are allocated fairly as organizational changes reach employees
  • Showing members of staff that the organization supports them by hosting “town halls” for people to ask questions throughout the change process

Trustworthiness score

We critically evaluated the strength and quality of the study we used to inform this Evidence Summary. We found that the study design – a meta-analysis of cross-sectional studies – is  moderately appropriate to demonstrate a causal relationship. Therefore, it is likely that trust in leadership impacts employee behaviour and attitudes.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

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Our mission is to provide leaders and decision-makers with trustworthy and actionable insights from behavioural science.

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 Dirks, K. T., & Ferrin, D. L. (2002). Trust in leadership: Meta-analytic findings and implications for research and practice. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(4), 611-628.

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