What Should Leaders Do When Trust Is Broken?

What should you do when trust is broken in your company? Given the rapid and uncertain business climate we’re in,  it’s no wonder leaders can say the wrong thing in haste, or even the right thing but in the wrong way at the wrong time. When that happens, trust is broken.

It takes years to build up trust and only seconds to destroy it. ~ Anonymous

In May 2005, a false and defamatory statement was written by an anonymous contributor in the Wikipedia biography of John Seigenthaler, a famous journalist. In September he noticed it and called Wikipedia who removed it immediately. In a scathing editorial in the New York Times, Seigenthaler criticized Wikipedia as a “flawed and irresponsible research tool.”

Since Wikipedia is an open-source site that derives its value from the trust people have in it, this loss of trust was devastating. The Wikipedia Foundation knew it would have to act quickly and responsibly. Here’s what they chose to do:

  1. It created a special section called “biography of living persons,” and made it more difficult to edit; it is monitored more frequently.
  2. It stopped allowing anonymous users to create content.
  3. It spent time showing the relative validity of data in Wikipedia compared to well-respected encyclopedias.

The preventative measures taken by Wikipedia as soon as the error was discovered helped regain public trust. Subsequent studies have compared Wikipedia with the more traditional Encyclopedia Britannica, and found them to have roughly an equal number of flaws.

Trust is a key factor we discuss in my coaching engagements with clients. There’s nothing that poisons a relationship as much as mistrust. When that happens, you need to be aware of it and confront the issues as soon as possible.

When trust is broken, take immediate steps to fix the problem instead of ignoring or downplaying it. Employees will be skeptical and/or suspicious, so choose your words carefully. Acknowledge that trust has been damaged, and start the recovery process as quickly as possible.

You needn’t have all the answers or a detailed plan. There can even be a lag between naming the problem and describing what you’ll do. Just let people know that you’re aware of the issue and its impact on them, and that you’re committed to setting things right.

Identify the problem as precisely as possible. Is there an adversarial relationship between people in the sales offices and those at headquarters? Are people doing end runs around a department that has a reputation for arrogance?

Imagine what success will look like in practice. You may, for example, establish clear roles and responsibilities, an exceptions policy, a dispute resolution process, and submission and response protocols. In meetings, you can spend less time assigning blame and more time on what the staff is doing right.

The first step in repairing broken trust is to offer a sincere apology:

  • I am sorry.
  • I take responsibility.
  • What can I do to make it right or solve the problem?

With greater trust, managers and leaders can reap tangible business benefits: increased productivity, improved performance and genuine employee engagement.

I know it can be hard to deal with a lack of trust. But nothing is more important. (Image: freedigitalphotos.net by jscreationzs.)

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