That’s the question I was asked by one of my clients recently. It was interesting as I’ve been reading more widely about trust and credibility in recent months. I didn’t have an answer because we mainly talk about the things to do to create trust from a starting point of neutral. What happens if trust has been broken? How long does it take to get it back?
I asked my LinkedIn community what they thought.
What was fascinating to me was how they responded with the assumption that the trust was broken from a leader to their employees, when the situation I was discussing with the client was a peer-to-peer issue. This assumption is interesting because I talk a lot about team friction inside organisations and getting teams working better together, something that’s particularly important in organisations with complex hierarchical relationships.
There were some great comments and insights, with several people stating that all parties must want to rebuild the relationship, but that it also depends on the reason that trust has broken down.
Simon Monger, director, commented, “I think if trust is damaged because of a procedural, operational or skills-based error – then it can be earned back. If it’s broken because of ethics, then it’s likely gone forever.”
Lyndon Johnson, company founder, posed the query: “It depends on what you’re using as the basis for the trust”. In a similar vein, Lisa Talbot, personal brand expert, suggested that we need to ask, “how do you define trust in your business?”
Several people commented that it’s about actions, not words. I’ve almost finished listening to The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle and the importance of linking behaviours to words is referenced throughout. The need for leaders to embody the values, the purpose and the culture is incredibly important for teams to thrive and that’s because of the link to trust.
If we take Stephen Covey’s definition of trust from his book, Speed of Trust, he states:
“Trust is a function of two things – character and competence. Character includes your integrity, your motive, your intent with people. Competence includes your capabilities, your skills, your results, your track record. Both are vital.”
This definition completely works for me and is helping me continue my reading and research into leadership credibility, which is something I’m working on behind the scenes.
Rachel Stidworthy, marketing manager, commented: “That question raises so many more questions! How was the trust broken? How genuine is the desire to rebuild trust? What are the personality types of those looking to reengage and those you are trying to reengage with?”
These are all the questions to explore. As Amanda Lancaster, director, pointed out, “Your reputation is built on the perception of your stakeholders. Do you know who they are? Have you considered their needs and how they influence your organisation?”
Another concern is that part of the issue of rebuilding trust is that one of the parties may not know it’s broken in the first place. I always say we must get comfortable being uncomfortable and have difficult conversations if we want to move things forward. When it comes to trust, how often do we tell someone that something they said or did has had an impact on trust and the relationship? Not enough.
Sarah Black, a global communications expert who is part of our collective team commented: “Part of the process has to be intentional work to acknowledge the trust ‘fail’, apologise genuinely, and then do the ‘actions’.”
So, can you rebuild trust?
Yes. It will take time and there will be some things that can’t be repaired, but that’s usually because one of the parties doesn’t want to. In the workplace, this is important to acknowledge. We have to acknowledge, in ourselves, whether we can sustain working with someone who has broken trust in our relationship. If we work together and I don’t want to rebuild the trust after it’s been broken by other’s actions, I have to acknowledge that I probably need to leave. I don’t believe you can stay in a place of work, be aligned to the direction and engaged in the vision if you don’t trust the person leading you or the broader organisation.
It seems like the answer to my client’s question is the normal answer I give to many questions about communication and business: “It depends!”
The six elements to rebuilding trust in the workplace
There were consistent themes in the comments on LinkedIn and alongside the work I’ve been reading. Here are the key things to consider:
- Both parties must want to rebuild trust
- Actions are more important than words
- Be accountable for anything you have done that has damaged trust in your relationship
- Be genuine about what you will do and can do to rebuild the trust
- It takes time and you must consistently do things to show you’re doing things differently
- Trust starts with trusting yourself – if you can’t keep commitments to yourself, how can you keep them with others?
In other words, as Stephen Covey says:
“For the most part, the difference between those who change behaviour and those who don’t is a compelling sense of purpose. When your purpose is to accomplish results in a way that builds trust, suddenly the behaviours that build trust are no longer just nice to do’s.”
If you’d like to find out more, here are some links to further listening and reading:
Building trust and credibility (15-minute listen) | Fear and trust (15-minute listen) | Trust and narrowing the say-do gap (three-minute read) | Psychological safety and trust are not the same thing (two-minute read)
Please get in touch if you’d like to talk more about how to build trust within your leadership and your teams.