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Five steps for rebuilding trust

Six people from diverse races form a circle of trust using their hands, with one person's hand holding the wrist of another person.

Trust is the main ingredient that binds a relationship, keeps a team together, drives performance, and enables collaboration and coordination. In his book The Trust Edge, David Horsager found trust to be the underlying connector of high-performing business units and nonprofit teams around the world. With dysfunctional teams or organizations, Horsager says a lack of trust is at the root of the issue  — not a leadership issue, communication issue, or a resources issue.

But trust can’t be forced — it is a judgment people must reach on their own. Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley explains, “By trusting our colleagues, we are willing to be vulnerable to them when it comes to making sure they will do their part in tasks or keep in confidence whatever we might confide in them. In teams, trust includes an expectation that people will act for the good of the group.”

Neeley points out two terms to help us think about the nuances of trust: cognitive trust (coworkers are reliable and dependable) and emotional trust (coworkers’ care and concern for one another). Put simply, one involves the head while the other involves the heart. Neeley says one type isn’t necessarily better than the other, nor are they exclusive. What is important is to understand what kinds of trust exist, and how they can contribute to collaboration and productivity.

So what happens when trust is broken? How does one go about rebuilding trust?

The issue of betrayed trust has been explored by many researchers (Covey, Link and Merrill, Reina and Reina, Twibell and Townsend, Gottman) both with personal and professional relationships. While each suggests some different paths, significant overlap can be found. When examining the overlapping ideas, the following five steps are essential to all trust-building efforts:

Step 1. Acknowledge and own your part in what happened.

This has to be the first step — if someone is unable to take ownership for what was done or deny their part in a breach of trust, then there isn’t a reason someone should believe that behavior will change or be different going forward.

Step 2. Allow negative feelings to surface.

When trust has been broken or betrayed, there is often a very strong emotional response. Like any other kind of emotion, people need the time and the space to process and express the feelings they experience as a result. By allowing those feelings to come out — especially negative ones directed at you or those that feel like an attack — you are displaying that you care about the person, their wellbeing, and the impact of the broken trust on them.

Step 3. Make a commitment to a new behavior.

This is about rebuilding communication and accountability. In most cases, you will start small and establish confidence that you can make good on changing your behavior. However, if you don’t tell the person that you are adopting the new behavior, they may not understand your actions and your commitment to rebuilding trust — or it may just go unnoticed.

Step 4. Allow for time for temporary unsettledness and new behavior.

This step can be really hard because the time it takes to reestablish emotional trust will vary for everyone. For many people, healing isn’t a straight line, in spite of how much we may want that for ourselves. You need to be okay with taking the time to adopt and enact your new commitments and for the other person to acclimate to your new behavior.

Step 5. Go back to step 3 or let go and move on.

If you establish trust on the new commitment made, it’s likely time to go back and make a new commitment to continue building that trust. This is often an iterative cycle, something we keep going through again and again, so be prepared that renewed trust won’t happen after a single, successful commitment has been followed through.

However, there is another possibility — some people are so shaken by the breach of trust that they are unable to trust you again — no matter the amount of commitments you make and follow through with. For your own health and productivity, you can’t endlessly seek to rebuild trust. In some cases, the next step is to let go, forgive yourself, and move on. It’s all context-dependent though, so you’ll have to assess when this choice may be appropriate.

I would caution coming to the above conclusion too quickly, though. There is a lot of good news when it comes to rebuilding trust that has been broken. Even in instances when trust has been shattered, research suggests that rebuilt trust — when done thoughtfully and authentically — is stronger than before.

Author: Catherine Rasmussen, Extension educator, leadership and civic engagement

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