Fixing broken trust

Sep 11 2006 by Dan Bobinski Print This Article

Trust is a funny thing. Some give it without hesitation; others give it in small doses, only as it's earned. Build trust and great things can get done. Break trust and not only will people get hurt, forward progress can come to a screeching halt.

According to management consultant David Straker writing at, "the most immediate effect of the betrayal of trust is in the emotional impact on the person betrayed. Generally speaking, the greater the trust that you had put in the other person and the greater the impact their betrayal has on you, then the greater the distress you will feel."

Straker says that upon recognizing you've been betrayed, the most common emotion is anger. Another is fear (that the relationship might be lost), or "repulsion at the lack of integrity of the other person."

No matter what emotion affects you most, Straker says that the future of the relationship can be fragile.

"When you are betrayed by someone," he says, "it is highly unlikely that you will easily trust them again."

Straker is right. It's not easy. But if we're going to move forward, we have to find a way.

Finding a Way
Rebuilding trust with a coworker requires understanding that people are not perfect. They will fail us. Although it seems counter-intuitive, forgiveness is a powerful step in the move forward. It far surpasses the fake power offered by "justice" and "revenge," which serve only as empty and temporary victories for the person who was wronged.

Consider the example of Steve, a salesman who took advantage of his relationship with a vendor in way that made Steve look like a hero. The problem? Steve didn't seem to care about the monetary loss that the vendor incurred.

When the vendor learned what happened, he was deeply hurt, but he realized that getting even wouldn't help anybody. His trust for Steve was severely lowered, but if he wanted to maintain his reputation - and his own trustworthiness - the vendor would have to choose a higher road.

It's a no-brainer that getting hurt by someone can make forgiveness a difficult choice, but the truth is that each of us has the capacity to do so. If we are unable to forgive someone's sincere apology and look for ways to move forward, then the obstacle lies within us, not the other person.

Those who have been deeply hurt may choose detachment for a time so they can gather enough strength to move ahead. But being permanently disconnected only perpetuates tension, diminishes productivity, and essentially eliminates any sense of fulfillment.

Most people don't enjoy unfulfilling, tension-packed surroundings, with the possible exception of perpetual victims. Sadly, some find a level of familiarity with being a victim, and they'll even create conditions in which trust is broken just to have that familiar, predictable sensation. They don't really like it, but perhaps through years of repeatedly having their trust broken, they don't know how to survive in any other environment.

For people who have been genuinely hurt over and over to the point that they're drained and they can't find the energy to forgive, it may be best to move on. The purpose of such a departure should be taking time for one's spirit to heal. The main caution is to avoid assuming the role of victim. Taking time to rest and heal is healthy; taking the role of victim is not.

Rebuilding Trust
Rebuilding trust is a process. No magical machine whereby you can drop in a quarter and out drops a container of trust. It just takes time.

It is probably wise to set boundaries, and be professionally firm or temporarily disengage when those boundaries are crossed. But we also need to focus on the future, not the past. It means seeking for ways that work, not just pointing to ways that haven't.

In my workshops, I like pointing to Stephen Covey's concept of the "emotional bank account." The idea is that we build trust when we keep our commitments and promises, don't talk behind people's backs, are courteous, kind, and open to feedback. Each of these activities serves as deposits in our trust accounts with other people.

Bottom line, people are going to let us down and break our trust. Our forgiveness, our willingness to move ahead, and our own trustworthiness are the main contributions we can bring to the rebuilding table. Then, with these practices and principles, we can heal and move ahead to do more great things.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Daniel Bobinski teaches teams and individuals how to use emotional intelligence and how to create high impact training. Heís also a best-selling author, a popular speaker, and he loves helping teams and individuals achieve workplace excellence

Older Comments

I would like to know the answer to this question that I was presented with the other day. Broken trust can be regained by which of the following? A. A sincere apology B. Commitment to change. C. Demonstrated performance D. Time

What is the best answer?


There is no best one, they ALL are important in regaining trust and they ALL are essential to the process.

Kathy Sitz Yorba Linda

I think people have to do all of those things in order for trust to be rebuilt. Apologies have to be made, commitment to change has to be proven, and there needs to be time for healing.