Managing employee trust during change

March 05, 2024

The only constant in life is change. While that idea is credited to Greek philosopher Heraclitus, it has perhaps never been so applicable to organisational life where change has been continuously accelerated by technological advancement, socio-political and economic challenges. One of the consequences of fast paced change is that the uncertainty and novelty it creates spurs employees to consider – should I really trust my organisation to look out for me? 

This is potentially a big problem. We have mountains of evidence that employee’s trust in the organisation is important. Trust in organisations influences outcomes from firm and individual employee performance to well-being, willingness to lend a hand to co-workers, and intentions to leave the organisation for another job. If organisations want to have happy, productive, loyal employees while taking advantage of technological advancement or adapting to pressures in their external environment, they need to pay attention to their relationship with their employees. 

So, what can organisations do if they want to be more proactive in managing employee trust? Our research suggests three important areas to focus on when employees are feeling uncertain.

  • Create a Sense of Normality

The first step organisations can take to protect and even strengthen trust during times of change is to (re)create a sense of predictability and safety for employees. This might look like reminding employees of the values or mission that remains the same amid the changes. For instance, a message from leadership that although the way we are doing this has changed, our focus remains delivering an excellent service to our consumers. Or it might require upskilling and training of employees to feel comfortable in using new technology or process to support their work. The overarching aim here is to reduce uncertainty about what is going to happen next and highlight the rules or values that they and their colleagues can use to guide their decisions in a less familiar world.

  • Signal Goodwill

To support trust, employees also need to feel that the organisation and its leaders take employee needs and preferences seriously. For this one, communication alone is unlikely to cut it. Messages that claim the organisation is focused on employee well-being only work if they are accompanied by actions that demonstrate it. We are not talking about tick the box mindfulness seminars at lunch time or free smoothies in the canteen but about involving employees in the co-creation of how the organisation functions. As the organisation adapts to change, the best way to show that it cares about employee needs is to give them a role in ensuring those needs are designed into new processes. In the example of technology advancement, this might look like involving some of the employees who will be most impacted by the new technology as champions in the early stages of testing and roll out and taking on board their recommendations for how it can be used

  • Level the Playing Field 

This third recommendation is probably the trickiest to achieve but also the most powerful if you can get it right. In most employment relationships, employees feel they are more vulnerable to their employer than the other way around. When this power imbalance is very obvious (e.g., during times of fast paced change) it can be difficult to support and build trust. Organisations that really want to benefit from great relationships with their employees will need to show they have some skin in the game. As a starting point this might involve a signal that “we are all in the same boat here” that we are not certain of the best way forward either but we’d like to work together to experiment with different solutions. This kind of humility doesn’t come easy to every leader but it lays the ground work for an environment where learning is the priority and making mistakes in pursuit of that learning is ok. A more substantive act to level the playing field might be to create formal mechanisms to include employee voice and assessment of change into decisions about how the organisation will move forward. A seat at the table where the rules are decided, a voice in governance decisions and the oversight of change. 


Dr. Lisa van der Werff
Dublin City University Business School