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Repairing and Strengthening Trust

Learn how to build trust between people, understand why it might get weakened or broken, and discover how to repair and even strengthen it when it does.

 

In the previous post, we talked about people-based trust and the competitive advantage that comes from institutional-based trust.  In this post, we’ll explore how trust between people gets built, why it might get weakened or broken, and how to repair and even strengthen it when it does.

 

When talking about trust between people, it’s important to understand the difference between trust and trustworthiness.

 

Trustworthiness means being worthy of trust or confidence.  People can be considered trustworthy regarding their intentions and/or performance.  In other words, when someone is trustworthy, others can rely on that person to have their best interests in mind and to be competent and reliable.

 

The presence or absence of individual and social virtues sends a message about a person’s integrity and intentions, and thereby influences his or her perceived trustworthiness.  Indeed, research has shown that leaders establish trustworthiness by behaving fairly, reasonably, and consistently.

 

Trust is something that a person chooses to bestow upon another and is based on the person’s propensity to trust as well as the degree of confidence that he or she has in the other person’s intentions and performance.  Beyond initial levels of trust bestowed upon others, trust can be built, weakened or broken as a result of subsequent experiences.

 

How is trust built?

 

Trust between people is a dynamic process built over time in part through interaction.  Verbal and nonverbal communication convey messages of respect or lack thereof that impact perceptions of fairness and perceptions of whether someone others’ best interests in mind.  The perceived quality and openness of communication also influence perceived trustworthiness.

 

Experience over time is another important aspect of trust.  When favorable intentions, competent performance and reliability become predictable, perceived trustworthiness grows and trust gets stronger.

 

Why might trust get weakened or broken?

 

Clearly, when experience leads someone to perceive that an individual does not have his/her best interests in mind, is not competent, and/or is not reliable, trust gets weakened or broken.  But what about when intentions are well-meaning and people are reasonably competent and reliable?

 

When people enter into relationships, they often have unstated assumptions about expected behavior.  When trust is broken, it often represents an area where initial assumptions differed.  People may not even realize that they had assumptions about how the other should behave until they perceive that these assumptions were violated.

 

Often when trust is broken, people’s intentions are good.  In these instances, a third party can help people see one another’s intentions and behaviors objectively. For example, were performance issues due to lack of adequate resources or inefficient processes?

 

Even when intentions are good, however, trust inevitably gets weakened.  People are not perfect, misperceptions happen, and situations sometimes influence things in ways we don’t anticipate or can’t control.

 

How can trust be repaired?

 

When trust gets weakened or broken, there are six common ways of responding: (1) constructive dialogue, (2) ambiguous dialogue, (3) third party dialogue, (4) resignation, (5) retaliation, and (6) exit.

 

Constructive dialogue entails communicating intention to maintain a mutually rewarding relationship and expressing one’s views respectfully.  Ambiguous dialogue also involves expressing one’s views, but does not include sending a clear message of intention to maintain a mutually rewarding relationship; thus, a person may not come across respectfully and/or may become judgmental.

 

Third party dialogue consists of voicing concerns to a third party with the expectation that he or she will help resolve an issue.  While third parties can help people see through a clearer and wider lens, third party dialogue should not become a substitute for constructive dialogue.

 

Resignation involves enduring an unpleasant situation and keeping future interactions to a minimum.  Retaliation also involves enduring an unpleasant situation, but includes intention to do damage in return.  Last, exit means choosing to leave a relationship.

 

Engaging in constructive dialogue can not only repair trust, it can strengthen it.  If all parties express a genuine desire to keep a relationship strong and respectfully engage in an open and rich flow of communication—striving to understand one another’s perspectives—a climate of safety is created in which people can freely express their views and work toward resolution.  This increases predictability that issues will be constructively and respectfully resolved and that social interactions can be safe, healthy and effective.  As a result, trust can grow stronger because individuals realize that people truly have one another’s best interest in mind and perceive that issue resolution processes are fair.

 

When trust is weakened or broken and people recognize that their actions caused disappointment and/or harm to another person—even if unintentional—they can choose to engage in constructive dialogue, ask for forgiveness, and seek reconciliation.  Reconciliation involves more than saying one is sorry; it includes making a conscious and sincere effort to not repeat an offense and to change one’s behavior in ways that support the relationship.

 

When constructive dialogue is chosen to address weakened or broken trust, the person on the receiving end of the disappointment needs to contain his or her negative emotions, suspend judgment, be open to understanding the other person’s perspective, and be open to being influenced. A third party professional can aid this process.

 

How does the notion of constructive dialogue in response to weakened or broken trust relate to teams?

 

When trust has been damaged, teams can engage in constructive dialogue and openly and respectfully examine the situation.  Doing so in an atmosphere of safety can lead to inclusive solutions that strengthen trust and the cooperation and performance that follow.

 

Action item:

  • Think of a time that your trust was violated.
  • Were you able to suspend judgment from the start?
  • Did the person(s) involved ask for forgiveness and genuinely strive for reconcilation?
  • How did this affect your level of trust going forward?