Systems change is an essential component of leadership. When we lead a system, we are looking at the present but imagining a better future. We are living with the tensions between current reality and future possibility and influencing the system to move forward. This often means that leadership starts with an idea that is not widely shared and then moves the system in the direction of that vision, a process that inevitably requires change.

To guide change within networked, interdependent systems, it is critical to understand the dynamic between trust and relationships. Change flows through relationships at the speed of trust. The conversations we have with each other create feedback and ideas that flow along lines of our relationships. So, the quality of trust in these relationships set the upper and lower limits for the kind of change that can occur within the system. An understanding of this trust-relationship dynamic within your own organization can help you build strategies to influence systems change.

Transactional relationships built on a lack of trust

When we try to influence a system without trust, the result is transactional relationships. All systems have connections, but those without trust have a specific pattern to them. When we don’t trust each other, we prioritize the protection of self-interests, especially in times of change. Changes, then, are negotiated through relationships within the bounds of distrust. These incremental shifts occur from people trading off possibilities for the protection of current privileges or the status quo. Common dialogue around these changes is usually negative, with comments like, “Don’t change this or I won’t support the plan.”

Transactional relationships are motivated by the desire to get the most one possibly can while giving as little as possible. These relationships are all about “me” and “what I can get,” not about what one can give. But trust is the key mediating factor. It determines whether you enter a relationship with the intent to help or hinder change that is needed to improve the environment, organization or community you are working or living in. Without trust, you protect and minimize what you put on the negotiating table. The result at best is transactional change.

Transformational relationships built on trust

A different set of possibilities emerge, however, when systems change flows through relationships built on trust. Leading a system filled with trust invites people to be open to a higher shared purpose. It welcomes ideas of change and encourages people to focus on what they can contribute to a change instead of what they will get out of it. This shift from “How will I benefit, and what I do I want to protect?” to “What can I contribute and give?” is the critical difference between transactional and transformational relationships. And the quality of trust is an essential factor in making this shift.

Transformation, by definition, requires dramatic change. In nature, the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly completely alters the caterpillar’s shape, purpose, mobility and role. Similarly, transformational change inspires others to innovate and create in ways that will help grow and shape the future success of their organization. Having a higher shared purpose helps to name the intention of all the participants in the change process. This purpose becomes an organizing force that elevates the quality of trust needed to transform the system you are working in.

The next time you engage in systems change, take stock of the quality of relationships and trust you have in the system. If you can strengthen both, the impact of the change will move beyond transactional to transformational, giving wings to the future you hope to realize.