Building Trust on Shifting Sands: A leader’s guide to communicating change


“The art of communication is the language of leadership”  —James Humes

I love this quote because it so clearly makes the point that leading and communicating are inextricably linked. And never more so than when organizations are changing—which is to say, always. When companies transform their structure or business model, acquire or divest another firm, or undergo some other major change, leaders at every level need to tell the story effectively, in a way that’s credible, relevant and compelling. That’s a big part of how change gets wired into an organization’s DNA.

While this may seem obvious, many employees today remain skeptical and resistant to change. Why? Trust—or, rather, the lack of it. After years of reorganizing, rightsizing and reskilling, employees are exhausted with change. And they question whether any of it will make a difference. Although it’s not the role of communication to implement the company strategy, leaders can have a real impact when they deliver the right message in the right way.

Public relations guru (and my former employer) Al Golin spoke about the “trust bank,” and the importance of making as many deposits in it as possible—for those inevitable times when you’ll need to make withdrawals. Al was talking about the value of companies doing responsible work in their communities. However, his insight applies to driving change as well. Good communication greases the wheels of trust, which allows leaders to be effective. Here’s how leaders can build up their balance sheet.

If you say it, do it

The first rule of communication is consistency between word and deed, especially during periods of change. If there’s a disconnect between what their leaders say and the reality they see on the ground, employees will believe their eyes every time.

Get real

Too many corporate messages begin with what I call “throat clearing”—terms like “leveraging,” “synergies” and the like—before (finally) getting to the news at hand. Buzzwords create distance between leaders and employees because they don’t sound genuine—and authenticity underpins trust.

Ignore emotions at your peril

Good leaders appeal to reason, providing rational explanations for why change is needed. The best connect through emotion as well, recognizing that trust—and change—requires hearts as well as minds. When messaging misses the mark, often it’s because sussing out what employees may feel is given short shrift.

50 shades of grey

Most scenarios involving change aren’t black or white, they’re nuanced. It’s OK for leaders to recognize this complexity and the uncertainty it brings, and walk up to—but not cross—the line between acknowledging questions about the change (even their own!) and undermining its legitimacy.

Communicate early and often

Leaders communicating change rarely have the luxury of waiting for perfect information—and the rumor mill can be a notoriously efficient (albeit inaccurate) communication channel. Effective leaders tell employees what they know and what they don’t know, along with how and when they’ll fill in the gaps.

Patience is a virtue

Change happens in stages, and people prefer the comfort of the familiar to the insecurity of the unknown. The key for leaders is recognizing that their employees will absorb change at different rates, and what seems like implacable resistance may just require a little patience.

With markets and industries evolving all the time, organizations and their employees have to continue adapting as well. This can be a steep mountain to climb, with all kinds of obstacles that have nothing to do with communication. But if leaders take the time to craft and deliver a good story about why change is needed, how it impacts their people and what everyone needs to do differently, they can help their organizations cross the threshold to a place where once-disruptive change simply becomes business as usual.

This article originally appeared on the Jack Goodman Communications blog.

Jack Goodman

Jack Goodman heads Jack Goodman Communications LLC, a global communications consultancy that helps organizations co-create new narratives around change. As a global communications leader for Fortune 500 firms including Thomson Reuters, IBM and McGraw-Hill, and a communications consultant for clients such as MasterCard, Toshiba and Sprint, Jack brings a been-there, seen-that familiarity with change communications of all types; his personable approach makes the difficult business of change easier to navigate. He’s also shared his knowledge as a visiting professor of practice at the U.K.’s Newcastle University Business School.


  1. What a great article; direct, articulate, and wise. Jack Goodman is the real deal and an asset to any organization fortunate enough to avail themselves of his expertise. Highly recommended!

  2. Jack, this is spot-on. I used to do internal / executive comms at a large company (would love to get back to it one day), and change management was always our #1 challenge (and my favorite thing to tackle). Unfortunately, I see way too many leaders ignoring these principles, especially by ignoring emotions and communicating too infrequently. This should be required reading for anyone in a leadership position.

  3. Great article by someone who really knows change. I thought the point about not ignoring the emotional aspect of change is particularly important for leaders to take in. When employees feel like their leaders understand and even empathize with the emotional toll, they are more likely to trust that leader.

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