Rebuilding Broken Trust
Dr. Dennis Reina

So how do you rebuild trust? Trust is easy to break and difficult to repair. Yet it can be restored. However, it takes willingness and work. Willingness to take responsibility for one’s part in the dynamic. And work, to work through the necessary steps to rebuild trust. When trust in a workplace remains broken, no one wins. Not individuals. Not teams. Not organizations.

In fact, the consequences come with a high price. On the ‘hard’ side, productivity, performance and profits actually decrease. And on the ‘soft’ side, employees disengage. They tell us, “My heart isn’t in this anymore. As a matter of fact, I just look out for myself.” Team members say, “We’ve stopped thinking big, and we’ve stopped taking risks.” Leaders report a real loss in energy, passion, and creativity.

So as a leader, what can you do? Working with thousands of leaders, over the last 20 years, we have developed these seven steps to rebuild trust:

1. Observe and acknowledge what happened. When trust is broken, people experience it as a loss -– the loss of what is, what was, what could be — the dream. You need to assess the situation (formally and informally). Formally, you can use climate surveys and organizational culture surveys, employee satisfaction surveys and even trust surveys. And informally, walk around, see what’s going on. What are their concerns, their fears? What keeps them up at night? What’s the impact of the breach? What’s the impact on people?

2. Allow feelings to surface. Provide people with safe, constructive forms so they can voice their concerns and express their feelings to begin to work through them. Help people verbalize their pain. What are they telling you regarding what they are feeling? What are they concerned about?

3. Get and give support. This is absolutely critical and a key mistake that leaders make. They don’t give themselves and their people enough support. Help people recognize where they are stuck and how they can shift from blaming to problem solving. And seek support for yourself, too, perhaps through fellow leaders, a mentor, or an executive coach. Recognize your employees’ needs and your needs.

4. Reframe the experience. Help people to see the bigger picture, the extenuating circumstances, the business reasons why the change happened or why the situation that caused people to feel betrayed happened. Help them refocus and shift from the blame to the problem solving. And help them see what options they have, what choices they have.

5. Take responsibility. Hold yourself and others accountable. What role did you play in the process, whether it be a change, whether it be a perceived breach of trust. Acknowledge that. And what role can your people now take, moving forward? What actions can they take to shift from dwelling on the past to moving to the future?

6. Forgive yourself and others. Forgiveness is not letting the other person off the hook. Forgiving doesn’t mean excusing; it means acknowledging the impact of broken trust. Help people shift from blaming to problem solving. Ask questions such as “What needs to be said or done to put these issues to bed?” “What needs to be said or done to let go and move on?”

7. Let go and move on. Letting go and moving on isn’t about hanging on. It’s about remembering — remembering the lessons that need to be learned. It’s about accepting what is so and putting the past to bed. It’s about helping people shift from dwelling on the past and shifting to the future.

So in summary, it’s important to remember the process of healing and rebuilding trust isn’t a one-minute quick fix, but these seven steps provide an important foundational framework for healing broken trust and rebuilding relationships. And while there are seven steps, what we know from experience is that healing and rebuilding trust are not a linear function. Individuals may be in multiple steps at a time. You may be in steps four, five and six and circle back to two and three. Or depending upon the magnitude of the breach or the broken trust, you may cycle through them again and again. What is important to remember is that the more we practice these steps, the easier they become and the more trusting and meaningful your relationships will be.