In Change Management, People Skills, Project Management

Trust and psychological safetyWho do you trust with your company’s future? The answer, at the most fundamental level, has got to be your people. I have been doing some really interesting work around building and maintaining an environment of trust in organisations.

Trust underpins ‘psychological safety’ in companies and it is pivotal to successful change management. It is about the psychological contract that employers have with their employees. On top of formal contracts detailing pay and hours, these are all the unspoken rules, such as: ‘If I work hard, my employer will reward me well and give me more opportunities.’ (It is the same process that means we expect a certain level of reciprocity when giving presents or doing favours in our social lives.)

And when organisational change comes along these unspoken bonds of trust can be broken. Change efforts solely focusing on a surface need to ‘deliver the changes’ do not always pay enough attention to allowing people’s deeper needs to emerge. It is where a lot of the resistance to change can come from.

The science of trust

I have gained some fascinating insights from Paul Zak’s book The Trust Factor. Zak is Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and outlines his ideas in Harvard Business Review.

He explains how he identified a brain chemical called oxytocin as crucial to allowing people to trust each other. He then ran 10 years of experiments to identify the promoters and inhibitors of oxytocin and found that high stress is a potent oxytocin inhibitor.

From this scientific basis he developed management techniques to enhance trust, such as recognising excellence, opening lines of communication and trusting employees to choose which projects they will work on so they focus their energies on what they care about most.

The benefits of trust

His results were startling: “Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout,” Zak writes.

Organisations undergoing change need to be more people-focused and ‘human’, making it safe for staff to feel comfortable talking about what they really think. Building a culture of trust can also help build resilience, another critical ingredient in preparing employees for the continual change the modern world throws at us.

Companies that have positive psychological contracts with their staff see high levels of employee commitment, and a positive impact on performance. On the other hand, broken trust can have a negative impact on:

  • job satisfaction
  • commitment
  • engagement and therefore performance.

4 golden rules to instil trust

How should you mitigate threats to this psychological contract?

Four golden rules are:

  • Communicate openly and honestly about the change as early as possible
  • Build in lots of opportunities for feedback and involvement
  • Be realistic about the impacts of the change
  •  Involve HR very early when there will be high staff impact (e.g. redundancies).

Turning trust into successful change

You’ll find some further ideas in our blog ‘Tackling the pace of change’,  It explains how people need to have a sense of control – some autonomy to feel they can make a choice, rather than everything being imposed on them. It is when organisations create a safe environment of trust and openness that people feel safe learning and trying out new things.

If you think that learning more about trust could help your company overcome its change challenges, why not consider our masterclass ‘Change Management for Line Managers’? Line managers play a big part in creating a climate of trust.

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