Addressing Minor Trust Betrayals in the Workplace
I recently betrayed the trust of a colleague. I promised I would do something and then forgot to do it. This left my colleague with unexpected work and responsibility at a particularly busy time. On a continuum of trust betrayals, this would be considered a minor one. After all, I did not forget on purpose. It was just an oversight, a mistake, not an intentional act of harm (Reina & Reina, 2010). So not really a big deal, right? Well, not necessarily. Unaddressed trust betrayals, even minor ones, contribute to creating low-trust environments and can irrevocably damage relationships (Lencioni, 2005; Reina & Reina, 2010). If the person responsible for the trust betrayal also happens to be in a leadership position, the impact is amplified.
Trust is one thing that is shared by all of us, regardless of what country we live in, what language we speak, or what organization or team we are a part of. A high-trust work environment correlates with organizational commitment and enhanced and accurate information flow. Trust helps people feel safe, which in turn allows them to engage in productive conflict and debate around ideas (Feltman, 2021). It fosters creativity and innovation (Covey, 2006). Despite the power that trust wields, it is also fragile and can be lost quickly. In low-trust environments, good work can be impeded or even prevented from happening. Those who suffer a trust betrayal will hold some level of fear, resentment, anger and frustration around it (Feltman, 2021). If left unaddressed these emotions can manifest into larger workplace issues. This begs the question if trust is so critical to every relationship we have, why is it not talked about more often in the workplace?
Leadership experts attribute the lack of dialogue around trust in the workplace to its complexity (Brown, 2018; Covey, 2006; Feltman, 2021; Lencioni, 2005). Trust is emotional and provocative. Have you noticed how your body reacts when someone you do not trust walks into the room? Having the courage to address those uncomfortable feelings and take steps to resolve them with the perpetrator can be a daunting task.
So, what can you do to mend the relationship when you are the perpetrator of a trust betrayal? First, you must acknowledge and apologize. Feltman (2021) argued that this is the only way forward. Acknowledgment makes it clear that you recognize and declare that you did something wrong – even if it was unintentional. An apology demonstrates that you are taking responsibility. This must consist of more than just saying ‘sorry’. A poor apology can be worse than no apology at all. Check out this site for advice on how to make an effective apology. Second, while it is acceptable to ask for forgiveness, be sure to articulate what concrete actions you will take to rectify the wrong and how you will ensure that it does not happen again (Reina & Reina, 2010). Nothing nullifies a heartfelt apology and erodes trust more than the repetition of the behaviour that made it necessary in the first place.
Minor trust betrayals are a natural part of human interaction. It is not a matter of if they will happen, but when. Addressing them early and effectively will help to protect and nurture trust in your workplace.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: brave work, tough conversations, whole hearts. Random House.
Covey, S.M.R. (2006). The speed of trust: The one thing that changes everything. Free press.
Feltman, C. (2021). The thin book of trust. Thin Book Publishing Company.
Lencioni, P. (2005) Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers and facilitators. Jossey-Bass.
Reina, D. S. & Reina, M.L. (2010). Rebuilding trust in the workplace. Berett-Koehler.