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Rebuilding Trust – Is it always Possible?

I recently met with several members of a group in conflict. When asking one member what their goal was moving forward to resolve the conflict, they mentioned that they would like to see behavioural changes in the other person. We explored what this might look like and through further questioning established that even if the other person’s behaviour changed they would be skeptical that this was sincere. With so much damage to trust in this situation is it possible to rebuild and save this working relationship?

According to Rousseau and her colleagues, experts in trust building “Trust is a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another”. [1]

The need for trust arises from our interdependence with others.  We often depend on other people to help us obtain, or at least not to hinder, the outcomes we are striving for (and they on us). As our needs with others are intertwined, we also must recognize that there is an element of risk involved as we often encounter situations in which we can only influence. Therefore, trust is very valuable in all workplace interactions.

Communication is the fundamental tool for rebuilding trust. People who have an opportunity to safely explore hurtful events and build understanding can begin to rebuild trust. Trust implies mutual understanding between people; each person understands the values and needs of the other. This is the stepping stone to enable people to reach an agreement that meets both their needs.

People who work together successfully need to establish a common goal or identity. Nurturing a common identity creates a sense of unity that can further strengthen trust. Facilitators work to keep individuals engaged in talk and actions that build a sense of ‘we’ rather than ‘me’. They can support people to step back and see the bigger business problem, and show that they have more commonalities than differences. Working toward the collective achievement of these bigger business problems (goals) fosters a feeling of “one-ness” that can bring people together in a way that strengthens a shared identity.

Will they stand by what they agree upon?  Sometimes those in conflict require support in managing expectations, encouraging mutually-serving intentions and keeping agreements; which are all are examples of behaviors that build trust. When these behaviours are present people understand what is expected of them, roles and responsibilities are clear, commitments are kept or renegotiated; individuals collaborate freely, depend on each other, and perform consistently.  A facilitator can work with participants to build insight and awareness into these behaviours in an effort to keep things on track.

According to the Reina Trust & Betrayal Model, there are seven steps to regaining trust:

  1. Observe and acknowledge what has happened. People need to feel heard. Utilizing a neutral facilitator who can paraphrase, reframe and help others acknowledge the impact of their actions in a safe, confidential environment can help. Healing begins when we acknowledge what has occurred, the effect on people and the resulting outcome. Conflict coaching beforehand can also promote self-awareness and reflection for each party.
  2. Allow feelings to surface. A facilitator focuses on providing a safe environment to give people permission to express their concerns, issues, and feelings in a constructive manner. Doing so helps people begin to let go of the negativity they are holding, freeing up that energy for rebuilding relationships and returning their focus to the future.
  3. Get support. Rebuilding trust is hard work. People in the middle of a conflict or difficult situation cannot do it alone. They need support to fully understand what occurred, its effects, and actions that are necessary to move through the healing process. It is through support that betrayal may be used as a stepping stone for growth, innovation, shared responsibility and accountability.
  4. Reframe the experience. People should be supported to reframe their experience by looking at the bigger picture, reflecting on circumstances, noticing the reasons for concern, and exploring opportunities that the conflict presents. Let’s shift the focus from the past (what they don’t want) to the future (what they do want). When reframing the experience, consider that while people do not have control over what has occurred, they do have control over how they choose to respond.
  5. Take responsibility. People take responsibility when they acknowledge their mistakes or oversights. Telling the truth, without justification and rationalization, demonstrates a person’s trustworthiness and exposes vulnerability. Doing so makes it safe for others to expose their vulnerability, seek support and take responsibility for their own behavior.
  6. Forgive yourself and others. Recognize that forgiveness is freedom and is the gift we give ourselves. Anger, bitterness, and resentment deplete people’s energy and interferes with relationships and performance. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or accepting that the violation was OK. We can realize that someone has done wrong to us, but forgive them also.
  7. Let go and move on. Accept what is so. Acceptance is not condoning what was done but experiencing the reality of what happened without denying, disowning, or resenting it – facing the truth without blame.

While not easy, rebuilding trust is essential for those in leadership roles and for those seeking to build strong working relationships. The cost of not doing so is too high to be ignored. Facilitators can play an instrumental role in supporting people to heal from betrayal, to rebuild and sustain trust and renew working relationships.

“Trust is a peculiar resource; it is built rather than depleted by use.”   — Unknown

[1] Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S., and Camerer, C. (1998). “Not so Different After All: A Cross-Discipline View of Trust,” in Academy of Management Review, 23, 393-404.

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