Module 8: Factors Affecting Organizational Capacity for Change - Leadership and Management

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Trusting Followers

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Factors Affecting Organizational Capacity for Change

Leadership and Management

Trusting Followers

The Importance of Trusting Followers

Trust refers to a person’s belief that others make sincere efforts to uphold commitments and do not take advantage of that person if given the opportunity. [1]

As discussed in the previous unit, trustworthy leadership is an important ingredient to engendering a trusting organizational environment in which change can take place. However, effective leadership is incomplete unless there is effective followership. [2]

After all, leadership is a relationship, not a position. If the leader’s partners, the followers, are not sufficiently trusting, then organizational change capability will be impaired.

Trust makes all change possible! All trust must start with leaders

Employees’ Collective Propensity to Trust

People differ in their inherent disposition to trust others.

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The central issue is whether those who are not driving change within an organization see change as an opportunity for growth or a threat to their well-being.

There is considerable organizational research that demonstrates that the label of “threat” or “opportunity” is influenced by the perceiver as much as the actual event, if not more so. [5]

Some people may find it more difficult than others to trust! An employer needs to deal with that!


“Propensity will influence how much trust one has for a trustee prior to data on that particular party being available. People with different developmental experiences, personality types, and cultural backgrounds vary in their propensity to trust.”[3]

In other words, it takes emotional intelligence to follow and to lead well. [4]

Risk Associated With Trusting Others

When risk is evaluated to be “reasonable.” the employee is inclined to trust the change agent and “buy in.” [6]

Some proposed changes are relatively riskless, so it is relatively costless for employees to go along with a change initiative.

However, many changes proposed by change agents carry relatively high costs for employees, and therefore it is rational for employees to be more cautious.

But the riskiness of a current change proposal is not the only element that influences the risks with trusting the change agent.

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Another issue is the weight of history. Organizational trust evolves over time. Some have observed that it is slow to build and quick to be destroyed, as evidenced by the quick demise of Enron. [7]

Another issue that is looming larger and larger for organizations is the rise of flextime, outsourcing, and virtual organizations. It has been observed that these efficiency-creating administrative realities of the 21st century make organizational trust more fragile since face-to-face interactions are a much more robust way to build and maintain trust. [8]

Benefits of Pervasive Organizational Trust

When an organization has employees who are generally trusting of senior executives, then organizational trust is high.

Previous research has shown a relationship between organizational trust and organizational learning, [9] hope, [10] and organizational innovation and
change. [11]

Effective followership requires the proper organizational context as well as effective and trustworthy leadership.

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Pervasive organizational trust helps lead change!


As discussed previously, organizational trust is fragile and can be destroyed relatively easily. However, motivated followers can be a source of competitive advantage, and trusting followers is fundamental to becoming a change-capable organization.

Furthermore, it is becoming more valuable over time. Organizational trust provides an anchor and some stability when everything else is changing. Having some predictability and psychological safety when everything is in flux and changing is a valuable resource. [12]

Practices for Building the Trusting Followers Dimension

If you are interested in building organizational trust in order to make your organization or organizational unit more change capable, the following are some actionable ideas that you can pursue to make that a reality.

Try to implement some of the following practices in order to develop trust in your organization!

Practice 1: Dialogue With Employees; Don’t Just Talk to Them

People trust others who they believe understand them. [13]

Both of these anecdotes presented in the attached example illustrate that a tremendous amount of employee trust and energy is liberated simply by engaging in dialogue, rather than in the more traditional top-down communiqués that occur throughout the business world.

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How does an old-line manufacturer in a stagnant industry manage to grow 25% per year for 10 years? The answer, made in a recent Inc. Magazine cover story, is, by taking its employees seriously and listening to them.

Atlas Container makes cardboard boxes. They also practice “open book management” and engage in workplace democracy. [14] In another instance, the Ford Motor Company turned its poorest-performing plant operating near Atlanta to one of its best, simply by engaging in dialogue with the entire 2,000-member unit. [15]

Practice 2: Encourage Constructive Dissent From Subordinates

Some change experts argue that leaders need constructive dissent from their subordinates in order to lead effectively.

Clearly, this needs to be done with tact and diplomacy, but it can be done.

Intel trains its employees in conflict management, and identifies their ability to surface and resolve conflict in the workplace as a distinctive competency. [16]

As such, an environment is created where constructive dissent is the norm is a valuable and rare organizational attribute.

Practice 2: Encourage Constructive Dissent From Subordinates (Continued)

Engaging in constructive dissent takes courage and willingness to incur the wrath of the rest of the organization.

In general, organizations do not react well to those who disrupt social harmony. [17]

Consequently, training and education as to how to respectfully disagree with a supervisor can be helpful. However, nothing replaces the importance of demonstrated examples.

It takes time to develop an workplace where management’s decisions can be challenged by staff!

Practice 3: Be Fair and Consistent in Applying Corporate Policies

Inconsistencies and unfairness erode organizational trust very quickly.

While top executives are constantly confronted with exceptional circumstances and a continually changing environment, they must take care to avoid favoritism to one individual or group to the exclusion of other individuals or groups.

Once again, this is easier said than done.

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Sometimes, the manner in which these issues are handled are just as important as what is decided. In any event, follower trust is not possible in a work environment that is not generally seen to be fair and consistent.


To understand this concept, you must ask yourself questions such as:

What do you do when your star salesperson cuts corners with expense accounts?

How fairly is affirmative action handled in your corporation?

How do you handle requests by legitimately hurting subordinates who ask for exemptions from standard operating procedures?

Practice 4: Remove Employees Who Repeatedly Destroy Trust

“You need to get people off the bus who don’t want to go where you are going.”

While creating trust is typically a “warm and squishy” idea, there is a hard side to trust that involves punishment and sanctions applied to those who are just not capable of creating trusting relationships, nor are they inclined to do so.

Exceptional people build trust; mediocre people destroy trust.

Avoid hiring and get rid of those who destroy trust in your organization. As Jack and Suzy Welch succinctly stated, “Send the jerks packing.” [18]

Practice 5: Talk Straight and Be Transparent

There is considerable pressure on leaders to waffle and evade or just not be accessible. The belief is that the rest of the organization just does not understand the complexities and nuances of the information held at the senior-most level.

There is a grain of truth to this belief; however, leaders need to understand that straight talk is essential for creating organizational trust.

Recent research demonstrates that positive transparency on the part of leaders can greatly enhance followers’ trust disposition. [19]

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Staff can often find it difficult to understand complex jargon – be mindful of this!


Interestingly, Microsoft Corporation has a relatively high level of organizational trust. For example, 9 out of 10 employees at Microsoft Netherlands said they could “ask management any reasonable questions and get a straight answer.”

This is particularly noteworthy since the organizational unit recently underwent a downsizing experience. [20] The same can be said for labor unions, which is not easy to do in this day of declining union strength.

Clearly, straight talk and transparency are keys to enhancing organizational
trust in all parts of the organization.


[1] Child and Rodrigues (2004). Repairing the breach of trust in corporate governance. Corporate Governance: An International Review, 12(2),143–152.

[2] Kelley (1992). The power of followership. New York, NY: Doubleday.

[3] Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 709–734.

[4] Das and Teng (2004). The risk-based view of trust: A conceptual framework. Journal of Business and Psychology, 19(1), 85–101.

[5] Currall and Epstein (2003). The fragility of organizational trust: Lessons from the rise and fall of Enron. Organizational Dynamics, 32(2), 193–213.

[6] Ramo (2004). Moments of trust: Temporal and spatial factors of trust in organizations. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 19(8), 760–775.

[7] Jones (2001). Organizational trust, learning and performance. (Doctoral dissertation, George Washington University, 2001). Accession Order No. AAT3006928.

[8] Ozag (2001). A mixed methodology study of the relationship between merger survivors’ trust, hope, and organizational commitment. (Doctoral dissertation, George Washington University, 2001). Accession Order No. AAT3029589.

[9] Jelinek and Bean (2010). New innovation architectures will shape R&D labs of the future. Research Technology Management, 53(2), 2–5.

[10] Grey and Garsten (2001). Trust, control, and post-bureaucracy.Organization Studies, 22(2), 229–251.

[11] Pucetaite, Lämsä, & Novelskaite (2010). Building organizational trust in a low-trust societal context. Baltic Journal of Management, 5(2), 197–217.

[12] Mishra (2009). J. Walter Thompson: Building trust in troubled times.Research in Marketing, 1(2), 246–266.

[13] Brownell (2000). How to create organizational trust. Manage, 52(2), 10–11.

[14] Case (2005). The power of listening. Inc. Magazine, 76–85.

[15] Bunker and Alban (1997). Large group interventions: Engaging the whole system for rapid change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[16] Thomas (2010). Turning conflict management into a strategic advantage [Unpublished white paper]. Retrieved May 25, 2010 fromhttp://www.cpp.com/pdfs/conflict_whitepaper.pdf

[17] Mercer (2010). In praise of dissent. Ode Magazine, 8(4), 54–61.

[18] Stern (2009). Resources are limited and HR must raise its game. Financial Times, 14.

[19] Brownell (2000), p. 11. How to create organizational trust. Manage, 52(2), 10–11.

[20] Kerr (1975). On the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B. Academy of Management Journal, 18, 769–783.


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