The Changing Winds of Trust

Wednesday, September 12th, 2007

Former Senator, television and film actor, Fred Thompson, just announced that he is running for the Presidency of the US. There is a parody on the web about him. It ends with, “You know you trust him; does it matter why?”

John McCain, another candidate for the same office, was speaking to a group of high school students. Someone asked the 72 year old Senator if he was too old to be President. McCain replied, “Thanks for the question, you little jerk. . . You’re drafted.” Political commentator Karen Tumulty said, “This kind of line is vintage McCain. And if a candidate gets off a line like this when they are doing well, everyone will say that the line reflects his charm and his independence. . . But when a candidate is doing poorly, everything becomes a metaphor for trouble.” (Diane Rehm Show, NPR 9/5/07)

I think both these examples are important for people who lead change (or those of us who simply want to influence others). Trust is an elusive vaporous substance. And it can turn on you quickly. I have seen far too many decent ideas die because people lost trust in the leader or leaders.

I won’t insult you with the laundry list of things that contribute to trust. But I do suggest that you make trust itself a major category in your change management plan. I believe a big part of my job with my own clients is to help them see the extent to which stakeholders trust them, and to help those leaders monitor the changing level of trust throughout the life of the change.

It is far too easy to take comfort in some change management plan replete with Gantt chart and slogans, and assume that these prescribed steps will take you to the promised land. Plans are good, but having a way to check the pulse of the organization continually is equally important. And I’m not talking about formal assessments like 360s. Those tools certainly have their place, but they take too long to give you a weather report. You need (we all need) ways to pick up signals that a Level 4 storm is headed our way, today.