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triangulationLack of trust is one of the most insidious and difficult to resolve challenges in change management.

Despite the fact that individuals can, and will, verbalize their trust gap, they often triangulate, or share that perception with a third party, versus sharing their concerns with the second party, the target of their mistrust.

Consequently, many executives are oblivious to the brick walls they have inadvertently erected through poor communication, failure to engage individuals in the challenges being considered that drive the need for change or outright failure to deliver on promises. Open and rich communication channels build trust.

Others do not trust those who are leading the change. The reasons for this are myriad. The change leader may be new (“She cannot possibly understand the complexities of our organization well enough to be able to lead this yet”), inexperienced (“He’s led ethics policy changes like this in financial services companies, but he’s never done this for a manufacturing facility"), arrogant (“She’s going to do what she wants no matter what input we provide; she just won’t listen") or incompetent (“Every time he leads a project, we have major bugs or rollbacks; let’s just wait to comply until he has everything cleaned up”). Change leaders need to have their act together and learn from their mistakes.

Other employees trust the change leaders, yet they anchor their behavior to the subtle or overt reactions of a higher-leveled executive. One of my favorite change management research organizations is Prosci. Their strategy to understanding how to manage the people side of change is a fairly scientific one: they use a wide range of benchmarking tools to conduct longitudinal studies of massive change initiatives with over 300 top-tier companies. One of their most consistent findings is that the number one predictor of whether change will be appropriately assimilated within organizations is the level of sponsor engagement. If individuals do not fully trust that all executives are in alignment, they will take that cue and respond to it (either overtly or passive aggressively): they know on which side their bread is buttered. Consequently, executives need to either buy in or check out.

Some employees do not trust that changes will be reinforced. Perhaps there have been similar changes in the past that were repealed, and the employees wasted a lot of time or were left “holding the bag,” so to speak. Maybe the company has passively managed change adoption on past, resulting in low or no consequences in not changing behavior. Another highly complex trust issue related to lack of reinforcement is either a prediction of, or direct observation of, a system where not implementing the change will actually benefit the poor adopters. Consider an example in a call center that rolls out a new 15-second component to the servicing yet fails to adjust the average handle time targets for a monthly incentive program. Those who comply do not receive incentives (because their calls are too long), and those who do not comply win the top slots in the incentive program. The latter do not trust that there will be negative consequences to their behavior that are more painful than the loss of the incentive would be. Do what you say: the best plan is a reinforced plan.

Lack of trust subtly sabotages every phase of change management: savvy leaders need to be honest, prepared, aligned and consistent.

Additional resources:

Gerzon, M. (2006). Leading through conflict. In Hickman, Gill Robinson. (Pg. 541). Leading organizations: a perspective for a new era. Thousand Hills: Sage Publications.

Hiatt, J. (2003). Change management. Loveland, Colorado: Prosci Research.

Triangulation model ©2010 Karen Smith-Will