Building Organisational Leadership and Culture to Create Trust During Change

5 October 2016
Alex Swarbrick

by Alex Swarbrick

Alex Swarbrick is a consultant, facilitator and coach at Roffey Park, a leadership development institute based in the UK and Singapore.

In this blog, HR consultant Alex Swarbrick looks at the importance of an organisation’s leadership and culture during times of change. He gives five tips for HR to manage change and create employee trust.

I’ve recently been supporting an international NGO in Nepal to look at its leadership style and culture, just to make sure it continues to do what’s needed to work well with its partners. As the NGO, with which I have non-executive involvement, continues supporting the hardest hit rural communities rebuilding after last year’s earthquake, and adjusts following some changes in its senior leadership, it’s a good time to do it.

It reminded me how easy it can be to focus on changes facing our partners, and supporting them to build their capacity, yet risk overlooking the same issues in our own organisations. And in relation to people leadership and change, we neglect it at our peril.

I’m writing this from Singapore which is currently home. Good leadership matters here. More than anything. In Roffey Park’s 2016 Working in Asia study, 73% of respondents here said ‘good leadership’ is what motivates them at work. Maybe it’s not surprising. For a country that has just celebrated its 51st birthday, ‘good leadership’ is what’s seen as the secret to Singapore’s success.

When we asked leaders about their top three challenges, again not surprisingly, ‘managing change’ was number one, followed by ‘managing staff morale and engagement’ and ‘balancing diverse stakeholder interests’ in a close second and third. And when we asked HR respondents which HR technical skills they believed are the most important to possess, the number one answer by a long way was ‘change management and culture change’ (64%).

Another Roffey Park study (An Employee Perspective on Organisational Trust During Change), explored perceptions of organisational trustworthiness during change from an employee perspective based on work with three organisations. 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?

A framework (‘Trust Repair After An Organization-Level Failure’) we refer to in the study 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 – what senior leaders do, and don’t do.
  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 organisation’s 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?

Whatever the catalyst is – from an earthquake, to a restructuring, to withstanding financial pressures, to a change in leadership, to the global economic ripples from Brexit – it can result in protracted and deep changes for organisations. Handled well, employee trust can withstand such changes. Handled badly, and a change will cost organisations dearly and take years to recover from.

Here are five tips for HR to manage change.

  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 eight 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.

It’s clear that some practical steps to maintain employee trust through organisational change, help make it more likely that the change will succeed.

While we may not be anticipating enormous changes, constant change makes these steps something worth keeping in mind and following all the time.