It's About Trust, Not Change

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The problem with change is, in fact, not change at all.

Despite all we are told about how difficult it is to manage change, the truth is that as human-beings, we are wired for change and get bored with monotony. Or, as The New York Times article, New Love: A Short Shelf Life by Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, put it: “…although we may not realize it, we are biologically hard-wired to crave variety.”

So, if the issue with change is not the change itself, what is the problem? Most people embrace change when they are the architects of their own change. We enjoy trying different restaurants and going to various vacation destinations. We enjoy sampling new foods, seeing new movies, reading new books, and meeting new friends. Resistance to change kicks in when it is imposed upon us, especially when it is done so by people we do not trust to have our best interests at heart. When people trust the intentions of the person imposing the change, they feel comfortable even though the change is externally instituted.

Consider a boss telling a subordinate on a Friday that she is delighted with his performance and has some career changes in mind for him. The subordinate is unlikely to be severely stressed during the weekend. On the contrary, he might be energized by the prospect of positive change. This illustrates that change per se is not threatening to people. If the subordinate is deeply distrustful of his boss and her motives, he might experience a different weekend, one filled with stress and consternation. The cause of the resistance to change and the stress it triggers is not change—it’s mistrust.

The reason that so high of a percentage of organizational change initiatives fail (some studies put it as high as 70 percent) is that organizations lack the required level of trust to make change acceptable. Irrespective of the competence of change agents and change specialists, if the people affected by the change do not trust those imposing the change, they will resist and even sabotage it.

Trust cannot be legislated because trust is an emotion that must be cultivated. Trust does not stem from a rational analysis of data, nor does it result from consistent delivery on promises. Data and consistency can engender a feeling of reliability, but not one of trust. Trust, like love, can be felt instantaneously when two people meet for the first time, even before there is any track record of reliability or data to substantiate a reason for trust. Trust is how you feel about the intentions of others, not just about their actions. Are they looking out for themselves or for you? Are they covering their own backs or do they care about others? An airline attendant telling me that for my own safety I should keep my seat belt fastened at all times, doesn’t lead me to trust him or the airline for which he works. I know his comment is a function of the airline’s fear of liability, not its love of humanity. When an airline official goes beyond the call of duty to help me when I have missed a connection, I feel differently towards her and I heed her advice because I trust her.

Trust does not flow from people’s mindless obedience to bureaucratic procedures. Trust does not flow from command-and-control management techniques, and it cannot be elicited by people whose actions are inauthentic. Trust is a feeling that ignites between two people. You feel it when you sense that another person authentically cares about you and is willing to subordinate his or her own interests for you. Inspiring trust requires character—there are no shortcuts and it cannot be faked.

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