Organizational Transitions: Lack of Organizational Trust

A Blog Post by Brian Miller

I grew up near enough to St Louis that my family would make the trip two or three times a year. Coming from Illinois, the only way into St Louis is across a bridge spanning the Mississippi River. The Poplar Street Bridge is the length of two football fields and carries Interstate 70 across the river toward the famous St Louis Arch. It is quite the entrance into the St Louis area.

Since my dad rarely left the county, my mom would drive us into St Louis dreading the Poplar Street Bridge the entire two-hour trip. As we approached, the car had to go quiet, like a submarine entering an enemy harbor. The radio was turned off, everyone was placed on high alert, and mom would focus her eyes on the bumper of the car directly in front of us. Her white knuckles indicated the problem: a terrible fear of heights.

Once across the bridge, the interstate diverges into multiple options depending on your intended destination. It was still quite tense, but as the feared obstacle was crossed, mom drove on with renewed determination because new options were directly in front of her. The bridge and Illinois were left behind.

The Bridge Transition Metaphor
The most frequently used metaphor for transitions is the bridge. You move “from” one organizational state “to” a new organizational state. You can’t take everything across the bridge. Organizational leaders choose a bridge for that very reason. They want a new start in a new place. Targets have been identified as to what to leave behind. Staff members, traditions, vision, strategy, logistics, and more.

This post addresses what happens as the organization exits the bridge. I have observed that this is the most dangerous spot. Upon exiting the bridge, multiple options open for the organization, but many organizations simply pull over to the side and park their vehicle. Rather than gazing out at the new frontier, you see many in the organization looking back across the river at what was left behind, continuing to grieve their recent loss.

I see three obstacles that stop the organization from choosing a forward option and moving quickly into what was touted as a land of promise.

1. Not enough trust to keep moving forward.
2. New roles are not defined.
3. Next steps are unclear.

For the rest of this post, I’ll deal with “Trust is lost.” I’ll address the other two obstacles soon.

Trust Is Lost
Trust is lost because what had moments ago been considered sacred is now strewn alongside the road on the other side of the river. These formerly sacred objects had been collected over a number of years and have numerous community stories attached to them.

Let’s listen in to what’s being said by those gazing back across the transitional river.

• “If they let Leslie go, why would they keep me?”
• “We followed Mr. Gonzales for 20 years. Now we’re being told he was leading us in the wrong direction. I’m not sure I believe that.”
• “I fear that many more will be left behind who aren’t ready for this new journey. I don’t know how to reassure anyone that it is going to be alright.”

You can hear the lack of trust.

Leadership rebuilds organizational trust by being vulnerable, not by being confident. Click To Tweet

Saying “Trust me,” isn’t going to create any trust at all. Trust is built by sharing life together. After a major transition, there are less people doing more work, but if the organization doesn’t pause to recreate community then no one is going to be in a hurry to move on from the river.

One senior pastor following a major transition in his church required the staff to take one day per month retreat to reflect on their own spiritual life or the life of their ministry. He built trust by trusting them with a day away every month. He built trust by giving them to time to reflect and think about the losses and this new direction.

Another senior leader hired a coach to individually coach key leaders through the transition. This was not required but highly encouraged. It was made crystal clear that the coaching conversations would be completely confidential and that not even an inkling of topics would be discussed outside the coaching relationships. Almost all key leaders took advantage of this opportunity.

My experience has been that new staff are much less interested in a coaching relationship. They don’t feel like they need it. It almost feels like they are being asked to attach themselves to the old ways that were supposedly discarded. This is a mistake. To ignore the loss of trust created by the transition is to ignore what is necessary for the organization to move forward.

My recommendation to leadership would be to make coaching optional for current staff but required for new staff. The reason to make it optional with current staff is to build trust. Leadership trusts and respects the current staff enough to let them choose what they need. The reason to make it required for new staff is because they need to build trust, and coaching is a major thrust of that effort. They can start by learning to trust a coach.

Upon arriving to the other side of a transition, a consultant is of no help in building trust. A counselor is closer to what is needed but isn’t equipped to help people move forward. They resolve the past. A coach hears all the concerns of each key leader and helps them chart a course forward to resolve the obstacles created by a lack of trust. This allows the organization to leave the past behind and move boldly into the future.

In the following weeks, I’ll write more about the difficulty of moving past the transition.