If you are looking for a way to differentiate your company in a way that competitors will find it hard to emulate, look no further than the level of trust you have with your employees.


Imagine two CEOs looking at efforts that will bring significant changes to their employees. The cost of health has been increasing annually at double the rate of inflation. This year something has to give: employee premiums are going up substantially, the old HMO standby is going away, and a financially significant wellness incentive is in the works.


It is a lot to deliver all in one year, but CEO 1 is confident that the changes will happen with effort but little disruption. CEO 2 is already assembling the lawyers and preparing for appeals. The biggest difference between them? The level of trust at their companies.


As she prepares for the coming changes, CEO 1 is looking at messages that explain the business need and educate employees on how to make the most of their benefits. CEO 2 is looking for ways to remove or obscure the tough messages and “sell” the new benefits. Their employees have, over the years, come to anticipate these different styles.


The launch email goes out with FAQs and other supporting resources, and interesting differences appear almost immediately:


Company 1 starts with some initial loud resistance. Employees ask questions which get answered promptly. The boldness and directness of the questions makes it easier to assess points of confusion versus areas where employees are having trouble accepting change. There might be a few forums: open calls or town halls to allow open dialogue and other back and forth. It’s likely that training might be developed to support education and provide yet another forum for feedback.


Company 2 gets quiet. All the outward communications look similar to company 1. They, too, could have open forums, training sessions, FAQs and more. At first glance it might even appear that company 2 is doing better because “no one is complaining.”


In the halls and over lunches a different story is unfolding, and the predominant questions are: “What’s really going on?” and “Why are they doing this to us?” Employees are generating rumors  to bridge perceived gaps in information. Those rumors are not generous to company culture or leadership – they presuppose ill intentions. Since this is all happening through informal channels, there is less opportunity to catch and address misperceptions. Even when you do address them, employees have learned to be skeptical of official responses. They read between the lines and try to discern what the company is trying to hide.


Any time we introduce change, it takes time for employees to recognize it, adjust, and accept it. That’s the change acceptance curve I’ve discussed in other blogs.  Company 1 accelerates their progress along that curve by pushing the resistance forward.  This helps people move from the emotions of anger and resistance to thoughts of “what can I do?” Action is a great friend of change acceptance. A goal of any change effort should be to identify early actions that employees can take to support change.


Meanwhile company 2 has muffled employee voices. It’s going to take a lot longer to identify points of resistance and address them. The organization is divided into “us” versus “them.” Both leadership and employees use coded language to communicate difficult decisions and dissatisfaction respectively.


Allowed to progress, distrust atrophies to a point where employees do not bother to read corporate messages or react to corporate initiatives. The company becomes quiet and inert. The only signs of trouble will be an inability to see important business efforts through to completion and high turnover among your most energetic and capable employees.


Where would you rather work?


If you’re interested in learning more about trust and how it relates to change that sticks, register for the IABC Heritage Region Annual Conference in October and stop by my presentation with Megan Hogan on Behavior Change that Sticks.