Trust, leading change and storytelling

In my last blog I posed the question, ‘What does Trust have to do with communication and feedback?’. Here’s my take on the role of Trust in leading change.

Trust plays an important role in organisational performance and has been shown to have positive commercial benefits when it has been built, developed and maintained (Searle and Skinner 2011) Similarly, Watson and Wyatt (2002) found that 3 year total returns to shareholders were significantly higher at companies with high levels of trust, clear linkages between jobs and objectives and employees who believe that the company manages change well.

 Trust is the willingness of individuals to expose themselves or become vulnerable to others (Butler 1999). It expressed by Rousseau et al. (1998, p.395) as “a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another.”

Trust is the invisible glue that binds all of our relationships together. It is difficult to describe but you know immediately when it is not present. Trust is dynamic and leads to behavioural expectations.  It is mutually developed and negotiated over time through experience and requires a deeper understanding of colleagues beyond the professional role. It holds people together and it is earned and tends to grow at a slow pace. Research indicates that this is unlikely to be achieved in less than 5 years (Institute of Leadership and Management 2009)

To enable others to trust us, we may need to show some vulnerability. In my experience, this can be a challenge for some. Many who lead or are in a position of authority are reluctant to display any signs of vulnerability for the fear of being perceived as ‘weak’, ‘not in control’ or ‘not coping’.

Trust in leaders is critical in times of uncertainty and change. Staff are less likely to respond to change if they do not trust their leaders. To trust you, employees may need to understand who you are, what you stand for, what values you hold, to be honest, confront reality and to be accountable.

I often tap into the power of storytelling when working with clients who have to share bad news and yet at the same time inspire and move forward.  Last year I worked with the leader of an organisation which needed to make some radical cuts and changes. Possible redundancies, a 4 day week, redeployment were all possibilities.

Storytelling can be used effectively to win hearts and minds. We are more likely to remember stories and how we felt when we heard them. Rationality, objectivity, facts and data may be useful in connecting with the mind but they do little for engaging with the heart and emotions.

It took several drafts before the client was able to craft his story, weaving in examples and personal perspectives of where they are now and being empathic and authentic in his delivery. Being honest about the uncertainties and difficulties that lie ahead and demonstrating empathy in how staff are feeling all required some degree of vulnerability. Drawing on past successes and on shared values, painting a vivid picture of the future and laying out the steps to get there drew on strengths. A story told from the heart will engage, give meaning and unity to the audience making them feel that they have a stake in the future success of the organisation.

How do you build and maintain trust in your organisation?

Have you ever displayed ‘vulnerability’ to others? What did you do and how did it feel? How do you gain the trust of others?  

Would love to hear from you


Butler J. K (1999) Trust, expectations, information sharing, climate of trust, and negotiation effectiveness and efficiency. Group & Organization Management, 24, 217-238.

Institute of Leadership and Management (2009) Index of Leadership trust 2009

Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S and Camerer, C. (1998) Not so different after all: a cross-discipline view of trust. Academy of Management Review, 23(3), 393-404

Searle R. and Skinner D (2011) Trust and Human Resource Management 2011

Watson and Wyatt (2002) Weathering the Storm: A Study of Employee Attitudes and Opinions.  Research Report: September 2002

If you are interested in storytelling, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art & Discipline of Business Narrative by Stephen Denning is a good start


About verawoodhead

I'm an executive coach, leadership facilitator and learning & development consultant working with managers and leaders to develop the skills and behaviours to inspire performance and drive results; achieve promotion ; make successful career changes, be resilient and thrive at work. Within organisations, I help to facilitate better conversations, design learning interventions which deliver practical and lasting solutions aligned to business strategy and goals. Connect with me on Twitter @verawoodhead
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2 Responses to Trust, leading change and storytelling

  1. Jamie says:

    This post helped me to deepen my understanding of trust. I hadn’t connected fully with the crucial role vulnerability plays with trust. I plan to share this post with some of my leadership clients. Oh, and if you’re not yet familiar with the work of Brene Brown I think you’d love her Tedtalk.

  2. verawoodhead says:

    Glad that it was useful Jamie and yes please do share.
    Not familiar with the work of Brene Brown. Will go andcheck her out.
    Timely post last week – had to ‘fess up’ about double booking appointments!

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