Rebuilding Damaged Trust In Workplace Relationships

damaged trust working relatioshipsHe has broken my trust in him – how can I ever trust him again?”

Parties in a conflict regularly make statements to this effect often in a tone of pessimistic finality, which for someone trying to manage or resolve the situation can be quite a challenge. That’s because firstly, the word ‘trust’ itself is an abstract concept and not as tangible to negotiate as e.g. ‘roles and responsibilities’. Secondly, people often use the term ‘trust’ to encompass a wide range of aspects of the interdependent working relationship and end up feeling that they can no longer work with this other person.

So how might you coach or mediate in a situation where people are feeling that that ‘lack of trust’ is one of the key issues to be sorted out?

It can be helpful to get clear first of all what we mean by ‘trust’. In terms of formal definitions, one could say that trust is the “extent to which someone a person is confident in, and willing to act on the basis of, the words, actions, and decisions of another”

Defining it in behavioural terms, trust can be broadly classified as :

  • Cognitive-based trust, based on someone’s demonstrating competence or dependability to perform effectively
  • Affective-based trust, based on emotion and a reciprocated sense of care and concern for the other person.

Cognitive-based trust in another person develops first and should be a feature of most functioning workplace relationships. However, many people working well together also develop levels of affective-trust, where they come to have genuine concern for one another’s welfare.

A further handy categorisation drawn from Ken Blanchard is the ABCD acronym:

  • Able – being competent in job performance
  • Believable – acting with integrity or credibility, fairness
  • Connected – demonstrating interest in and care for the other, being ‘real’
  • Dependable – following through on actions agreed

So how might you support someone or two parties who are framing their difficulties in terms of broken trust?

  • Use the definitions above to help people get clearer and more specific about what aspects of trust have been damaged for them e.g. is it the person’s job competence or perhaps a sense that they ‘don’t care about you’. People will express a greater sense of upset and disappointment where affective and not just cognitive trust has been damaged.
  • Invite them to express in specific behavioural terms what the events/actions were that led to them concluding ‘I can’t trust them’. Help them to get clear for themselves what it was they trusted the other person to do/say/be.
  • Acknowledge that there has been an emotional impact and invite them to talk about this – if you are in mediation, they might explain this to the other person. Rather than saying ‘how did you feel’, which can come across as being psycho-analysed, better to phrase your question ‘how did this affect you?’. If they are already very emotional and upset about it, ask them to come up with ‘one word’ to describe the impact for them.
  • A key factor that undermines trust is not so much a behaviour or action on the other person’s part rather it’s the negative intention that’s attributed to this. Inviting them to talk about how they read the other person’s motives can help them become aware of this. This can in turn then be checked with the other person – ‘was this your intention when you failed to meet the deadline/send the email/asked those questions at the team meeting’.
  • Use a neutral and non-blaming frame when talking about the difficulty e.g. ‘So this issue of trust between you…’ rather than ‘So the fact that Mary let you down so much Tom…’
  • As well as talking about the problem, invite both parties to talk about areas that they can still trust each other – this might be as basic as that each of them comes to work on time or that each of them still care about the customer/client/project. However, it’s a key step in beginning to overwrite that overwhelming sense of ‘I can never trust them again’ that has crept into the dynamic.
  • Use the metaphor of ‘rebuilding’ trust – i.e. that it is a process of small actions and steps on each of their parts. I often tell people ‘this meeting today is where you might lay the foundations of rebuilding your trust in each other…let’s now look at what some of the first layer of bricks might be’. This can then be used to help them brainstorm what specific actions they might need the other person to demonstrate in order to ensure effective working together. Tease out explicit expectations in respect of tasks, deadlines, objectives etc. If relevant, discuss also how they can ensure each of them follows through on what was agreed and how they will proceed should expectations of one another fall short again
  • As well as asking each person what they might need the other to do, invite each of them to say what actions they are willing to take themselves to rebuild the trust of the other person in them.

The ‘Snakes and Ladders’ board game is a helpful analogy for interpersonal trust in working relationships. It’s a gradual square by square process, with the odd ladder to help along the way. One might be way up in the nineties and one fatal slip, (landing on a snake) can take you right back down to the bottom again.

In supporting people to manage and resolve trust issues in a conflict, it’s essential to remain optimistic and remind people that while the working relationship might have ‘slithered down the snake’, they can always throw the dice and start again.