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Building trust in an age of disruption

By Dr Mathew Donald


The age of disruption may be characterised as an environment that is fast-paced, uncertain and risky. This new environment emerged from globalisation, aided by technology and trade interconnectivity, whilst facilitated by social media and the internet. A simple presidential tweet, or small change in a trade war is now transmitted instantly around the world, without necessarily any verification, analysis or investigation. This unfiltered and immediate nature of information may contribute to instability and confusion for staff and stakeholders. Leaders may not be able to control the external environment, yet through explanation, influence and engagement, leaders may be able to effectively reduce the stress and worry that results from disruption.


The interplay of trust and successful change

Leadership is influence. It can generate a willingness or inspiration to follow. Staff do not automatically listen and follow leaders irrespective of the environment, as they need trust as a precursor. If there is low trust in leaders, their messages may not be heard nor believed. It has long been recognised that trust is an element of leadership. Recent research now indicates that trust is also closely related to organisational change success. In a future disruption environment, change is likely to be constant and the need for trust is heightened, so future leaders will likely require excellent skills in communicating, explaining and involving staff in associated change.

Leaders set strategy, direction and plans to inform and influence their teams. The strategy and planning process is designed to signal a way forward, provide context and alignment across a whole array of staff and stakeholders. When new data and information emerge quickly, leaders could be under pressure to react to new advances, new information or developments. The risks in this scenario is where there is a high prospect of leaders regularly reversing and overriding past decisions. Reacting quickly may be just as risky as delaying decisions in disruption and the competition may react before accurate information or analysis emerges.


How disruption erodes trust

The changing nature of disruption creates new challenges as leaders will continue to attempt to build trust by delivering on past promises despite the change around them. Organisations will find it impossible to move forward if the leader is not able to ensure that they are believable and worth following. Imagine if a leader offers a pay rise, only to later discover that their cost of inputs has been altered significantly by a new tariff. Imagine a leader who announced a new acquisition but soon discovers that a new technology has completely eliminated the business value.  Sudden change that alters decisions are part of a disruptive world. So leaders of the future will need to explain changes, risk and uncertainty with their teams in order to prepare for disruption.


Leaders must be ready to respond

In an uncertain environment, leaders will need to explain the fast pace, the uncertainty and risk regularly. Failure to do this adequately will likely lead to staff confusion, or blame toward the leader for not controlling the situation. Staff will appreciate regular and open communication on disruption, even when they do not like the described environment. Communication is such an important part of leadership, a factor that is likely to be more important with constant change, so the new leader will need to be cognisant of various communication forms, language styles, formats and regularity. Leadership communication may even be so regular that staff may be included as partners or advisors, rather than merely as subordinates. Leaders will require efficient, effective and regular communication in order to build trust, those unable or unwilling to operate this way may fail to move an organisation forward with the speed required. The leader of the future will likely be comfortable in explaining the new environment and changes, whilst building teams that are resilient to multiple options and decisions despite any ongoing risk or uncertainty.

Dr Mathew Donald specialises in leadership, management and organisational change and has more than 35 years of business experience. He is the principal of Dr Mat – The organisational Health Doctor ™, available globally for consulting, mentoring and presentations. He is also the author of “Leading and managing change in the age of disruption and artificial intelligence” (Emerald $USD 100.00).


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