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People: Relationships for Change Part I

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

“We will be able to progress at the speed of trust.” - Change Agent, Director of Economic Development

In my research, change agents have a genuine desire to develop trust with people before change is introduced, as well as the desire to deepen trust along the way in order to move change forward. When discussing relationships for change, it is important to first address the change agent's perspective about and posture toward people. This will be discussed below through the lens of humility and humble leadership as one way participants developed trusting relationships with others.

The word humility itself comes from the Latin humus, meaning “earth,” and humilis, meaning “on the ground” (per the Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed in 2019).

Therefore, humble leadership can be characterized as “leadership from the ground” or “bottom up leadership” (Owens and Hekman 2012, 787). What this means is that even though change agents can hold executive-level positions in their organizations, they have the rare ability to lead others through personal connection by integrating seamlessly on the ground. Humble leadership is critical to change agency because it “will create and reflect the relationships that can respond to this accelerating rate of systemic change and will empower workgroups to build and maintain critical adaptive capacity to capitalize on accelerating change” (Schein 2018, 6). Although different kinds of relationship building and maintaining occur at all points of a change cycle, it is imperative that we focus on building relationships of trust at the beginning of the change cycle. Here, change agents seek to earn the trust of others by being a consistent presence who asks questions out of genuine curiosity, listens well, and acts with integrity.

Several theories on trust are based on social exchange theory, suggesting that “trust forms through repeated exchange of interests between two entities, or through the interaction of people’s values, attitudes, and emotions (Liu and Wang 2013, 231; Jones and George 1998). Similarly, Komives et al. argue that collaborative efforts are built through trust, which takes intentional investment and attention over time (2017). They write, “Trust does not happen immediately or automatically; it must be cultivated. When groups come together for the first time, people bring their own agendas, values, perceptions, motivations, and histories. Building trust and openness takes time and commitment” (Komives et al. 2017, 116). Although building trust takes effort and risk, trust can be “contagious” (Kouzes and Posner 2012, 222), thereby influencing quicker catalysis and eventual diffusion of change.

Interestingly (but maybe not), change agents who were already aware of their own strengths and weaknesses were better able to develop trusting relationships both inside and outside their organizations. Their self-awareness helped them wisely navigate their place within the complexity of collective social change. Without self-awareness, change agents are unlikely to know whom to invite, how to invite them, and to know at which points in the change cycle would be both accessible and strategic for others to engage. Although growth in self-awareness is a lifelong journey, it is necessary for change agents to seek intentional growth in their self-awareness before driving change initiatives. This way, the seeds of change can come forth from a healthy internal state of mind and then externally take root in life-giving ways.


Jones, G.R., and J.M. George. 1998. “The Experience and Evolution of Trust: Implications for Cooperation and Teamwork.”Academy of Management Review.23: 531-546.

Komives, Susan R., Wagner, Wendy, and Associates. 2017. Leadership for a Better World. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Kouzes J., and B. Posner. 2012. The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations (5th ed.). San Francisco: CA: Jossey-Bass.

Liu, Xiao-Ping and Zhong-Ming Wang. 2013. “Perceived Risk and Organizational Commitment: The Moderating Role of Organizational Trust.” Social Behavior and Personality. 41, no 2: 229-240.

Owens, Bradley P. and David R. Hekman. 2012. “Modeling How to Grow: An Inductive

Examination of Humble Leader Behaviors, Contingencies, and Outcomes. Academy of Management Journal. 55, no. 4: 787-818.

Schein, Edgar. H. 2018. Humble Leadership. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

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