Rebuilding Broken Trust: Mission Possible
By Vlad Vaiman
In my latest article entitled “Trust as a Foundation of Organizational Success” in the Pacific Coast Business Times — published April 10 — I have argued that it is trust that serves as a groundwork for any success that companies can enjoy both in the short and long term.
I have indicated that trust cultivates purpose, which in turn generates energy, which improves interpersonal collaboration and leads to high levels of engagement, performance, and retention, which are all strong indicators of success.
Unfortunately, many of us throughout our careers have witnessed firsthand how easily this pivotal trust — and especially, trust in organizational leadership — can be destroyed.
In general, trust in leadership comes from three key factors: benevolence — the belief that leaders will act with everyone’s interests in mind; integrity — the belief that leaders will be consistent in word and deed; and competence — the belief that the leaders have the expertise they claim. If any one of these foundational factors is missing, the trust is gone.
As we all know, it usually takes months, sometimes years, to develop and maintain organizational trust, but it takes virtually no time to break it. And when it is broken, it becomes extremely difficult to once again unite everyone around a common purpose, generate energy, improve the quality of interpersonal collaboration, and ultimately, achieve organizational goals.
So, what can be done to rebuild broken trust? Here are a few steps that could help organizations deal with this critical issue.
FIVE STEPS TO REBUILD TRUST
First, it is absolutely crucial to acknowledge that there is a problem in the organization. More specifically, senior leaders should acknowledge and accept that there are issues that have led to broken trust. At that point, taking responsibility for actions or missteps that may have exacerbated these issues is absolutely essential.
The second step is a sincere apology. Senior leadership should take responsibility for any actions that led to the erosion of trust and apologize to those individuals and groups who have been hurt.
The third step is to establish and maintain full openness and transparency in communication. In order to restore trust, top management must be transparent about the measures they are taking to fix the problem. Part of this process may involve informing people about upcoming personnel or policy shifts, among others.
The fourth step on the part of senior leadership (and also all interested parties) involves demonstrating commitment. Actions always speak louder than words, and senior leaders need to show by example that they are committed to restoring trust. In order to prevent similar problems from arising again in the future, this may entail making meaningful adjustments to the organizational culture, making investments in staff training and development, or putting new systems and procedures in place.
Finally, keeping commitments is crucial to restoring broken trust. Implementing any remedial action entails making a commitment to fixing the problems at hand and then following through on it, which is absolutely essential. Overall, it is important to keep in mind that rebuilding trust is an extensive process, but by taking these five steps, senior leadership as well as the entire organization can begin — slowly and sometimes painfully — to rebuild relationships and restore mutual trust and confidence.
MAINTAINING REPAIRED TRUST
There are, however, a few more considerations of a strategic nature for senior leaders to think about while trying to restore lost trust, in addition to those already mentioned. These considerations deal with the establishment and maintenance of a culture of trust in the organization, which should serve both as a facilitator for the five steps indicated above and as a control mechanism for future flare-ups.
To begin, top managers must first do all it takes to hear the concerns of individuals and groups who have been affected the most. In order to better grasp the problems and difficulties, it may be necessary to host open and non-confrontational town hall meetings, conduct surveys, and develop a meaningful feedback mechanism.
It is also important to remember that honesty is the foundation of trust. The company’s senior leaders must be forthright and honest about what happened, their plans to address the situation, and their efforts to prevent repeat incidents.
Next, they have to engage with their employees: trust is hard to rebuild without the help of the company’s key stakeholders. Management should encourage open communication by offering regular forums and open-door hours for people to pose questions, air concerns, and offer suggestions.
Then, they need to start modifying an organizational culture promoting trust and serving as role models. Those in positions of authority should act in ways that are consistent with the values they espouse, recognize and reward employees for doing the right thing, and guarantee that everyone is held to the same standards.
Last, if required, top-level management should look to outside assistance to restore public trust. Hiring a consultant, talking to people in the field, or finding a reliable advisor can all help with these efforts.
Once again, rebuilding broken trust is a challenging and lengthy process, but by taking the steps outlined above as well as following the guidelines for fostering a culture of trust, senior leadership can at least begin rebuilding it and creating a more positive and productive work environment for everyone involved.
Dr. Vlad Vaiman is Professor and Associate Dean at the Cal Lutheran School of Management.