Preserving organisational trust during disruption

Published March 2020

Gufstasson, S., Gillespie, N., Searle, R., Hope-Hailey, V. & Diets, G. (2020). Preserving Organisational Trust During Disruption.  Organisation Studies.


  • Organisational trust is important during periods of disruption. Trust helps employees and managers to effectively navigate challenging events and respond constructively to change, and underpins organisational agility and resilience.
  • Yet contexts of disruption - whether caused by economic crises, automation, technological advances, or transformational change initiatives - threaten trust just when it is needed most.
  • Given the rate at which organisations face disruption, this raises the pertinent question: How can organisations preserve trust during disruption and transformation?

What’s new

Drawing on a multi-case study of four organisations (2 public and 2 private) that experienced major disruption and large-scale change in response to the Global Financial Crisis, we conducted interviews and focus groups with 94 employees, managers and executives, to understand what differentiated the organisations that successfully preserved trust from those that lost trust.

  • We show first that preserving trust is different to building trust and repairing trust, and involves different practices and dynamics.
  • We then developed an evidence-based model explaining how managers and employees can preserve trust in their organisation during a disruption.
  • Specifically, we identify three practices that help preserve internal trust during disruption and transformation:
    • Cognitive bridging: Connecting the organisation’s change agenda - ‘its future’ - with its past and present, and communicating continuity in the organisation’s core values and purpose.
    • Inclusiveness: Consulting with employees and ensuring they have a voice during the disruption, particularly over decisions that affect them.
    • Working with emotions: Recognising and creating safe places to work through emotions raised by the disruption and change, and mechanisms to develop the coping capabilities of leaders and employees.
  • Our findings show that managers and employees need to understand the established foundations of trust in the organisation – that is how trust was originally built and how it is maintained in the organisations it – in order to preserve trust during difficult times.
  • We show that having the skills and understanding to mobilise, augment and transform these trust foundations is critical to preserving trust.
  • Managers who saw their role during the disruption as guardians of the organisation’s purpose and core values, were more likely to preserve trust, than managers who perceived their role as ‘change agents’.

Bottom line

Managing trust in contexts of disruption is a process fraught with challenges, as evidenced by the fact that employee trust is often lost during such periods.

This research demonstrates that organisational trust can be preserved through a set of active trust preservation practices, combined with mobilisation and transformation of the organisation’s established trust foundations.

These actions help to reduce the vulnerability employees and leaders typically feel during disruption and change, by reinforcing and protecting core organisational values and goals that underlie trust in the employee-organisation relationship.

Learn more about Trust, Ethics and Governance Alliance.