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Rebuilding Trust Relationships in the Radically Changed Organization Published: Monday, November 9, 2009 1:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

Most leaders strive to build trusting relationships in their respective organizations. However, they are also under intense pressure to make smart decisions quickly on allocating scarce resources and improving organizational results. With the spotlight on the need to make the whole institutional system more efficient and effective, organizational leaders are not exempt from making mistakes at the moment of making and implementing tough decisions in the name of correcting deficiencies or improving organizational effectiveness. A common consequence of such mistaken approaches is that trust erodes as relationships are compromised.

To sustain trust we must recognize a core truth-trust can be built and trust can be broken. When trust erodes, relationships and performance are compromised; we shut down, we pull back, we question the intentions of others, and we're hesitant to take risks and collaborate. While distrust causes pain, doubt, and confusion, it may also be used to strengthen relationships and provide significant lessons if we choose to work through it.

Our own research and practice with organizations of all sorts reveal that in critical change situations where trust has been severely affected, a healing process needs to be undertaken with the support of expert professionals in organizational behavior and performance. Even when such a process of support must be designed case by case, a core set of strategies will be at the center of any intervention of this sort. The most important ones are the following:

  1. Observe and acknowledge what has happened: Start with awareness. One of the greatest mistakes leaders make in challenging times is to assume that once broken, trust may be re-established on its own. This view is both unrealistic and irresponsible. Assess the health of your team. Notice what your people are experiencing and acknowledge it. Pay attention to what behaviors are building and breaking trust. Find out what is important to people. Listen to what they are saying at the water cooler, in the break rooms, outside of meetings. Remember, people in pain need to be listened to.
  2. Allow feelings to surface: Give people permission to express their concerns, issues, and feelings in a constructive manner. Create safe forums that allow people to express their fear, anger, and frustration. Doing so helps them let go of the negativity they are holding, freeing up that energy for rebuilding relationships and returning their focus to performance. Help people verbalize their pain and sense of loss. People sometimes have pain they are afraid or feel unable to share.
  3. Get and give support: Recognize your people's needs. These needs must be met before rebuilding can occur. People have informational needs regarding direction and strategy, and relationship needs associated with belonging to the team and their role on it. Give support! The number one mistake leaders make is failing to seek support for themselves and for their employees. Rebuilding trust is hard work. We cannot do it alone. We need support to fully understand what occurred, how it has impacted 'us,' and to do the necessary work to move through the healing process.
  4. Reframe the experience: Put the experience into a larger context. Help your employees reframe their experience by discussing the bigger picture and extenuating circumstances. Acknowledge how they have been impacted. Engage in inquiry. Let people's questions guide the conversation. Responding honestly will provide understanding, awareness, truth, and renewed hope. Help people realize they have choices. When experiencing betrayal, employees may feel vulnerable and at the mercy of forces outside of their control. The more people are aware that they can choose their actions, the more they are able to take responsibility.
  5. Take responsibility: Take responsibility for your role. We take responsibility when we acknowledge our mistakes and say we are sorry. Telling the truth, without justification and rationalization, demonstrates trustworthiness. Help others take responsibility for their roles. People in pain tend to blame their leaders and behave in ways that contribute to betrayal. Help them to see their part in the situation. Employees may not have control over what happened, but they do have control over how they choose to respond. Keep your promises. Don't make promises you know you can't keep. If you realize that you cannot keep promises, renegotiate.
  6. Forgive yourself and others: Recognize that forgiveness is freedom. Anger, bitterness, and resentment deplete our energy and interfere with relationships and performance. When we help people forgive, we help them free themselves. Yet, for most people, forgiveness takes time, and happens gradually. Shift from blaming to focusing on needs. Help people shift from blaming to problem-solving.
  7. Let go and move on: Accept what is. Face the truth without blame. Help employees invest their emotional energies in creating a different future. Realize that you won't always accomplish your goals. Yet make a good-faith effort and keep your intentions honorable. It is quite acceptable for leaders to disagree with their employees or not support a particular cause. Effective leaders do so with honesty and integrity. Take the time and make the commitment. When trust is lost, it is regained only by a sincere dedication to the key behaviors and practices that earned it in the first place.

Rebuilding trust is not easy, but the cost of not doing it is too high to be ignored. Trust is regained when leaders play an instrumental role in supporting their employees to heal from betrayal, rebuild trust, and renew relationships with their team members. The results are fully engaged employees who are invested in what they do, who fully bring themselves to work, take risks, hold themselves accountable, and ultimately, contribute to the team by performing at a higher level.


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