Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace

A proven 7-step process that leaders can use to take concrete and compassionate action in repairing employee trust

The Great Recessionthe deepest economic down-turn since the 1930screated chaos in workplaces everywhere. In the process, the very underpinnings of trust were upended. Today, one-third of working Americans say they plan to look for a new job when the economy gets better. Of this group, 48 percent cite a loss of trust in their employer as the reason, according to the 2010 Ethics & Workplace Survey by consulting firm Deloitte LLP.

Also, for the first time in recent history, trust and transparency are more important to corporate reputation in the United States than the quality of products and servicesa key finding from the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey on trust and credibility conducted by Edelman, a public relations company.

Though trust in business is up modestly in the United Statesafter plunging 20 percent in 2009the rise is tenuous, Edelman reports. CEOs rank next to last on the list of trusted spokespeople, and nearly 70 percent of individuals surveyed worldwide say that companies will revert to business as usual after the economy recovers. Major betrayalsfrom corporations grossly mismanaging worker layoffs to CEOs committing crimes and misdemeanorscan, and often do, make headlines. Minor betrayals, such as gossiping, finger-pointing or taking credit for others work, are more pervasive and erode trust over time. In most workplaces, the accumulation of little betrayals negatively affects peoples confidence, commitment and energy. According to our research, 90 percent of employees report that they feel the effects of eroded trust on a daily basis.

The consequences of broken trust come with a high price. On the hard side, they include major hits to productivity, performance and profits.

On the soft side, the consequences include attitudes such as, My heart isnt in this place anymore or I just look out for myself. Team members confess, Weve stopped thinking big and taking risks, and leaders report a real loss in energy, passion and creativity.

Broken trust wont magically disappear, however, and the process of rebuilding it cant be short-circuited.

A Seven-Step Process

Trust is easy to break but hard to repair. The good news is that there is a proven seven-step process (drawn from two decades of research) that leaders can use to take concrete, constructive and compassionate action. By practicing these seven steps, you can muster courage, mend broken trust, and move forward with a more engaged and energized workforce.

1. Observe and acknowledge what happened. When trust is broken, most people experience the impact as a loss of what was or what could have been. Tune into how employees are responding to that loss. Acknowledge their experience, listen to whats important to them and demonstrate that their views matter. Be sure to interact face to face, and use tangible tools, such as organizational surveys and instruments that measure trust.

2. Allow feelings to surface. Provide people with non-threatening environments to express their feelings and begin to deal with them. Focus groups, team meetings and one-on-one conversations can be helpful in creating safe, ongoing forums and ensuring that employees emotions dont go underground.

3. Get and give support. Help people recognize how they can shift from blaming to problem solving. Share information and insights to help employees feel involved and in the know. And seek support for yourself, if necessaryperhaps through fellow leaders, a mentor or an executive coach.

4. Reframe the experience. Put the experience into a larger context. Help people understand the bigger picture, such as the business reasons behind decisions, and help them consider their individual choices and opportunities, including potential benefits.

5. Take responsibility. Own up to your deeds. Determine the lessons learned and the actions you can take to improve the current situation. Hold yourself accountable and help others take responsibility as well.

6. Forgive yourself and others. Forgiving doesnt mean excusing. It means acknowledging the impact of broken trust and moving through it, learning from it and doing better in the future. Ask peopleand yourself: What needs to happen for forgiveness to take place?

7. Let go and move on. There is a difference between remembering and hanging on. Employees may not forget what happened, but they can choose to look forward rather than stay stuck in the past. Help people let go and move on with a sense of shared responsibility.

Dennis S. Reina, Ph.D., and Michelle L. Reina, Ph.D., are co-authors of Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace and Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace (Berrett-Koehler). They are co-founders of the Reina Trust Building Institute, a global enterprise specializing in measuring, developing and restoring workplace trust.

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