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Repairing Trust Might be Easier than You Think.

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

Trust is Fragile

How many times have you had an interaction at work where someone you trusted engaged in a behavior intentionally or intentionally that broke your trust? Remember that moment, even if for a split second, when unexpected emotions rose from your belly. Most of you feel caught off guard, and your first reaction was probably to guard and protect yourselves from future hurt. This is normal behavior when we invest in relationships, and then we are caught off guard when unexpected behavior that breaks trust emerges. There is only one challenge here. When trust is broken in the workplace, most of us write the other person off. We might continue to engage with them because we must, but we are weary and may even be suspicious of future behavior as our tentacles are up for future misdeeds. The challenge is the other person may not know we’ve been offended.


We All Make Mistakes

Think of a time in your life when you accidentally or unintentionally broke trust, either professionally or personally. Usually, in our personal lives, our close friends or family will tell us when we broke trust, but in the workplace, the radio waves are generally silent. Sometimes, when we break trust, we act out of fear and old wounds and may not be aware of our actions. I had a colleague, let’s call her Brenda, who a more senior leader was bullying. In open meetings, the senior leader would single her out in front of a group by saying. She was disparaged, and her reputation was being tarnished. She confided in another colleague because it was genuinely upsetting her. Her colleague who received the message could feel her pain and did not want her to go it alone. She was unprepared when HR called her into their office to discuss the bullying. Brenda was beyond upset; she felt powerless and betrayed by her colleague who was trying to do good and, in the past, was bullied in the workplace and didn’t want it to happen to someone she cared about.


It's important to acknowledge that we sometimes get it wrong, even with our best intentions. We get caught up in our own needs or misinterpret a situation. Since trust is the basis for all our relationships, we must learn to better care for it, even when broken.


Why do we Need to Nurture Trust in the Workplace?

What makes high-performing teams so successful? While there is undoubtedly an abundance of factors influencing performance, one factor is commonly overlooked: trust. Several studies have found that team trust significantly impacts performance (De Jong et al., 2016). Trust is a cornerstone for healthy relationships, functioning groups, and authentic connections with others. Interpersonal relations founded in mutual trust can increase emotional investment and commitment and reduce conflict. Conversely, letting distrust form and breaking trust can have severe consequences at the individual, team, and organizational levels. Therefore, mastering the art of building, maintaining, and restoring trust is a crucial leadership skill.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has defined trust as the ‘reliance on or confidence in the dependability of someone or something.’ It is associated with a perceived risk of exposing something valuable to others. While this sounds scary to most of us, trust is necessary in today’s business context because of the increasing levels of ambiguity and uncertainty. Today’s fast-paced business environment produces new challenges that require leaders to show vulnerability and empathy while supporting and caring for their subordinates. Charles Feltman, author of The Thin Book of Trust (2021), identified four distinct aspects of trust in the workplace:

  • Sincerity (demonstrating espoused values)

  • Reliability (keeping promises)

  • Competence (self-efficacy)

  • Care (showing concern for others)

Don’t Lose Sight There are Different Types of Trust

It is also essential to differentiate between different types of trust. According to Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley (Rasmussen, 2021):

  • Cognitive trust encompasses the degree of reliability and dependability we accord to a person

  • Emotional trust is related to showing care and concern for others.

Cognitive and emotional trust are not mutually exclusive, and they are both critical for developing healthy relationships. In other words, trust comes both from the head and the heart.

Trust can also be found at different organizational levels, including the interpersonal, team, and institutional levels. Leaders must learn to navigate building trust at various levels with a diverse workforce. At the interpersonal level, they develop dyadic relationships with their direct reports, colleagues, and managers; at the team level, they must foster a team culture of psychological safety; and at the institutional level, leaders must help the organization to inspire trust in its members. Furthermore, inter-organizational trust extends beyond organizational boundaries to external stakeholders, such as suppliers, clients, and advisors. Different types of trust affect productivity and effective collaboration differently and require other mechanisms to maintain it (Rasmussen, 2021).


Keep Trust Alive

Often, we take the trust of others in ourselves for granted and only realize its importance when it breaks. But how can we avoid breaking trust in the first place? Covey and Merrill (2006) outlined 13 behaviors that can help build trust:

  • Talk straight: Be honest and speak the truth.

  • Demonstrate respect: Show care for your connections.

  • Create transparency: Be authentic in your communication.

  • Right wrongs: Admit your own mistakes.

  • Show loyalty: Give credit to others for their contributions.

  • Deliver results: Get the right things done in time.

  • Get better: Work toward continuous improvement.

  • Confront reality: Address challenging issues directly.

  • Practice accountability: Take responsibility first for yourself.

  • Listen first: Understand, diagnose, and listen to others.

  • Keep commitments: Say what you’ll do and then do it.

  • Extend trust: Give trust to those who earned it and conditionally to those still in the process.


Trust has been broken; what now?

But what to do when it’s too late and the trust has been damaged? As humans, we all make mistakes, and we will break someone else’s trust one day, intentionally or not. Trust is often broken unintentionally since it is a delicate construct and can be broken very quickly. We tend to judge others as less trustworthy than ourselves, meaning our colleagues are more likely to judge us as less trustworthy than we like to think (Feltman, 2021). On the opposite spectrum of trust, distrust might arise when one party tries to protect themselves because they feel threatened instead of showing vulnerability. In those cases, people resort to strategies such as resistance, withholding, avoiding, arguing, ignoring, or even direct attack. These kinds of behaviors will increase the other person’s distrust even further, and in the long term, this will result in a downward spiral of distrust.

The consequences of broken trust can be severe and are usually related to adverse organizational and individual outcomes. The person whose trust was broken will experience an emotional reaction affecting their productivity, well-being, and relationship with the person who broke the trust. Broken trust can impair cooperation and collaboration and lower engagement and organizational commitment. Adverse outcomes can go beyond the impact on individuals, causing failures at the corporate level (Lewicki & Brinsfield, 2017). If trust is broken once, the victim will deem it likely that more breaches will occur in the future, and the responsible person must work to restore confidence. To do so, we must first understand that trust is accorded to us by others based on judgments they make about our observable behaviors and actions, not our intentions. People make their assessments of our trustworthiness based on what they see. Only by changing what we say and act can we build up the trust others have in us (Feltman, 2021).


Repairing Trust, One Step at a Time


Repairing trust starts by understanding how trust was broken and which trustworthiness factor was affected: sincerity, reliability, competence, or care. The nature of trust violation depends on whether it is based on a lack of competence or integrity, the severity and frequency of a breach, the perpetrator’s perceived intentionality, and the timing. This influences to which extent the damage is repairable and which repairing strategies will be effective (Schoorman et al., 2007). People accused of breaking trust respond by using different types of repair strategies: short-term and long-term strategies (Lewicki & Brinsfield, 2017). Short-term strategies are practical tools to limit immediate damage after the trust violation occurs. They can include verbal statements such as excuses, apologies, or compensation for incurred losses. Feltman (2021) proposed the following structure for an effective apology:


  • Express your regret to the affected person.

  • Explain why the violation occurred.

  • Acknowledge your responsibility.

  • Declare repentance (“I won’t do it again”)

  • Offer strategies to repair the damage.

  • Ask for forgiveness.


While these short-term strategies may temporarily dampen the impact of a break of trust, more sustainable fixes are necessary to repair a relationship.

Be aware that it takes time to get out of the “Doghouse.”

Structural rearrangements of the relationship, for instance, through modified contracts or policies, can bring formal reassurance and restore cognitive trust. However, restoring heartfelt trust is much more difficult. One can restore positive expectations by emphasizing a positive outlook on the relationship and using emotional language to convey apologetic messages. Some other repair strategies are less productive than others. When faced with guilt, we might resort to self-protective behaviors, such as shifting the blame to someone or something else, minimizing the damage done, or remaining silent altogether. This will only serve to aggravate the situation and resulting distrust. Leaders must become aware of these intuitive reactions and fight them off, adopting a response of accountability and transparency.

Authentic open communication also entails communicating when our own trust is broken. Feltman (2021) offered guidelines on how to have a conversation about our own perceived distrust of another person:

(Feltman, 2021)

  • Prepare for the conversation by identifying the aspect of trust you are concerned about (sincerity, reliability, competence, care) and the specific behaviors of the other person that lead you to distrust them.

  • Start the conversation by clarifying that you want to develop trust toward the other person.

  • Explain the specific actions that created distrust using neutral language. Refer to their actions rather than their character.

  • Ask for their perspective on the situation, listen, and refrain from interrupting or launching counterattacks.

  • Describe what they can do to regain your trust and ask them if they are willing to take action to regain your trust.


Forgiveness is an Essential Ingredient in Rebuilding Trust

Regaining trust will only be possible if we show our forgiveness. Forgiveness lets us focus on the future, not the past. We cannot change the past but create a new future. The capacity to forgive extends to one’s own and others’ mistakes. Self-forgiveness allows us to learn from our mistakes and change our behavior. Allowing ourselves to realize that we as humans are fallible will help us understand why others may break our trust sometimes. The willingness to forgive is one of the many steps leaders must take to master the art of creating trustful relationships.




References

Covey, S. M. R., & Merrill, R. R. (2006). The SPEED of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything. Simon and Schuster.

De Jong, B. A., Dirks, K. T., & Gillespie, N. (2016). Trust and team performance: A meta-analysis of main effects, moderators, and covariates. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(8), 1134–1150. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000110

Feltman, C. (2021). The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer For Building Trust at Work (2nd edition). Thin Book Publishing.

Lewicki, R. J., & Brinsfield, C. (2017). Trust Repair. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4, 287–313.

Rasmussen, C. (2021, September 27). Five steps for rebuilding trust. University of Minnesota Extension. https://extension.umn.edu/community-news-and-insights/five-steps-rebuilding-trust

Schoorman, F. D., Mayer, R. C., & Davis, J. H. (2007). An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust: Past, Present, and Future. Academy of Management Review. https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.2007.24348410






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