How Leaders Build Trust During Change

Today my wife and consultation business partner, Jocelyn, shares her thoughts on CHANGE as she waits to hear the surgical outcomes for our daughter.

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

I’ve been privileged to sit in boardrooms with C-level (CEO, CFO, CIO) leaders as they discuss upcoming or ongoing changes. It’s our job to advise them on change communications and engagement (a process of “change management,” to which there is a science).

My daughter, #3, taking the lead against a major rival before her injury.

As I write this, my 16-year-old daughter is under anesthetic for her third of four hip surgeries to correct an athletic injury sustained as a highly-competitive distance runner.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

This time is very different from her surgeries last fall. No one is allowed into the hospital without a mask, she had to show a negative COVID-19 test, and I had my temperature taken before entering the hospital. As the anesthesiologists wheeled her back, her dad wished her love via speaker phone instead of with a kiss on her forehead, because only one parent is allowed to be here. I’m in my car instead of the waiting room. The surgical team is texting updates–instead of giving me a bulky, flashing pager to prompt me to ask the attendant what stage of surgery she’s in.

More is changing daily. Just this morning, Duke University Hospital updated visitation procedures for pediatric patients. This represents many changes not only for me, as the parent of a patient, but also for employees.

How the Best Leaders BUILD TRUST During Change

One thing I’ve never heard from executive leaders (including hospital CEOs and even leaders of federal agencies) going through change is:

“How can we manipulate people in this change?” or “What can we hide from them?”

The leaders we’ve worked with usually want to do the right and best thing. But often, intention gets lost in translation. Leaders may assume they’ve communicated adequately when they haven’t. They may take for granted that they’ve had longer to digest a change than employees. Or they may be so busy dealing with a crisis that they don’t prioritize communicating what and why things are changing.

The face of communication breakdown

During change, leadership trust is at risk. One misstep may be forgiven. A trend in hiding information—or sharing ambiguous messages—may permanently damage trust.

Those who don’t trust their leaders won’t engage fully in the change. Productivity falls. Gossip becomes the main communication medium, as people scramble for answers. As a facilitator of employee focus groups, I’ve heard very inaccurate theories from the “rumor mill” on why leaders are making changes. But I don’t blame those employees… They seek answers in a vacuum.

When advising leaders, here are six principles we apply to turn change into a trust-building opportunity. Our surveys show that those who trust their leaders will support a change even before they know the details; those who don’t may never get on board, even after the change occurs.

1. Be clear about what is changing.

My daughter’s surgeon didn’t say, “Just trust me. I’ll cut her open, yada yada, and figure it out.” Instead, he said exactly what tendon he’d cut and how he’d follow her after surgery. He gave us a timeline, protocol, and role—with equipment to order and milestones to hit. And he encouraged questions!

Most employees don’t have access to the board room–or the information shared there. If you’re leading an ongoing or upcoming change, create an FAQ document and train managers on how to speak to it, to share important information in a uniform way.

2. Be clear about why it’s changing.

My daughter at USATF nationals (junior olympics)

When my daughter’s surgeon said she’d need two more surgeries because of scarring and ongoing pain, it was unexpected. But he let us know why. Without surgeries, her pain would continue, likely for the rest of her life. With surgeries, he expects she can run again—and hopefully compete. (How I would love to see that.) Since I know why she has to endure two more surgeries, I’m on board. As her mother, I’d jump through flaming hula-hoops to heal her.

If you don’t know or can’t share all that you know as a leader, communicate what you do know and can share, and when you will know more. Say why you are not sharing everything, if you aren’t. (For example, “We don’t yet when we will be open for business as usual. Our answer depends on what the state and country decide, which comes largely from the CDC.” Or, “We aren’t sharing our COVID data with hospital employees at this time out of confidentiality, but rest assured that you will be alerted if you are in close contact with someone who is known to be infected.”) If it’s a major or planned change, consider creating a “brand” or movement around the change, with visuals and themed events.

3. Communicate early and often.

I just got a text to say, “Patient still in procedure.” That’s not new information, but it lets me know I’m up to date. It keeps my fear at bay.

If you don’t communicate, or wait until a change is shared through the rumor mill (or on social media), you erode trust. In the absence of information, human nature is to assume the worst. And sending an email once to announce a major change or manage crisis is not enough. Research shows that employees (and customers) need to hear about a change 5-7 times–and in different channels–before acting on it. (Sending one email is not enough!) And they need  updates along the way.  Click here for a short primer on getting better at communications.

4. Be willing to correct communications.

If you must make an about face on a change, own it. Tell people why. An example is the public mask “debate.” We were told months ago not to wear masks. Now we are told they are our most effective tool in preventing COVID-19 spread, and many states are requiring them. Those who trusted federal agencies were willing to adapt to the new information. Those who didn’t resisted. A helpful message around this change would have been, “We know we communicated not to wear masks, and now we’re changing our directive. This is because of new research showing they significantly curb spread.”

5. Anticipate push-back and fear.

Fear is a normal response to change. People might say they love change, meaning they love  going on vacation or making more money. No one likes to be a victim of change. Put yourself in the position of an employee hearing, “We will be shutting down the business until further notice.” A loss of security and certainty creates threat. Communicate to address fears and answer questions they’d ask if you had a one-on-one conversation.

6. Share honestly and with hope.

You might not always feel hopeful. I don’t. I’m scared—of catching the virus, of my industry changing and making me obsolete, of not seeing my parents, of my daughter’s pain. But I also have hope. I’ve been through bad things before and survived. I’m learning to control what I can, even when I can’t control as much as I’d like. Leaders need to communicate confidence and hope to others. Hope is the thing that catches on and moves us forward—sometimes over hot coals for a short while (something I’ve actually done, and survived).


As the world processes changes, what would you add? How can we build trust? How can we make sure that as change happens to us, it’s also happening with us?

As my daughter wakes up from surgery, I plan to remind her why she’s had the procedure. When her pain gets bad, I plan to reassure her that it is temporary, and that she has a team of people helping her get back to 100%. And then I plan to work with that team to help her recover.

In other words, I plan to foster trust and hope as her world changes yet again–and I plan to engage in that change.

If we can help you engage through change, visit our COVID-19 services page or contact us today.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *