People Power: Restoring Trust in the Workplace

Jan. 15, 2016
What to do if distrust exists in your work environment

Trust is a concept familiar to many and is often discussed as an essential component to effective working teams. We talk about “trusting environments” and “trust-building exercises.” — in fact, trust is present in almost everything we do in our jobs, from working collaboratively within teams to the relationships we have with our clients, vendors and consultants.

But what do we really mean by the term “trust?” For many, it is simply an emotional expression of confidence. But there is much more to it than that. Trust is actually comprised of sincerity, reliability and competence. When someone says “I trust you,” they are really making three distinct assessments:

Sincerity refers to the capacity of someone to be honest in their intention and communication — that what he or she says can be believed. It also suggests that what someone says has validity or credibility that is backed by evidence or sound thinking. We can trust what is said.

  1. When someone is reliable, we can be confident that they will meet the commitments they made. Promises will be kept, and we can trust that they will do what they say will be done.
  2. We assess that someone is competent when they have the ability to do what they say they can do. We trust that they have the skill, knowledge and resources to fulfill their commitment.

When sincerity, reliability and competence are aligned, we enjoy trusting relationships; however, if one of these is unaligned, we suffer a lack of trust. In working with teams that have suffered some sort of breakdown in trust, it is always important to move from the emotional basis of “lack of trust” — where people are stuck in some form of hurt or injury — and move it into the domains of sincerity, reliability or competence.

Trust in Practice

One struggling team that I worked with involved a physician and his chief practice nurse. They had suffered a breakdown of trust after a disagreement during a challenging patient interaction. This distrust festered over a few months and by the time I was called, the two were barely communicating — quite a serious problem that had the capacity to jeopardize patient care.

My first intervention was to have them “diagnose” their breakdown in trust. Was it a lack of sincerity, reliability or competence? While the initial conflict was cited by both as the point at which trust was lost, I found that there were key breakdowns leading to the confrontation that were the true sources of discord. It turns out the physician had been concerned about the nurse’s reliability — she had called in sick on a number of occasions and although he felt she had the necessary skills and good intentions, her poor attendance caused him to question her reliability. On the other hand, the nurse felt that the physician was not telling her the truth about why he moved some of her casework to another nurse — she felt he was insincere and she did not believe him or trust his intentions.

Once we were able to diagnose the breakdown, the nurse and the doctor were able to have an open conversation about the sources of their distrust. With this conversation on the table, we were able to start the process of restoring trust.

The work involved in restoring trust is not always easy, but it is always achievable if both parties are willing to work together. It involves:

  • Being open and honest about the specific actions or behaviors that lead to the assessment of distrust.
  • Identifying the assessment that concerned each party (sincerity, reliability or competence).
  • Acknowledging and apologizing for any actions that led to the current state.
  • Understanding and accepting what the other party needs in order to regain trust.
  • Being willing to take some risk and assume vulnerability in restoring trust to the relationship.

In the case of the nurse and the doctor, once they were able to openly discuss the physician’s concern about the nurse’s attendance and reliability, the physician was able to speak truthfully about his reassignments — something he had not done before. Each had something to acknowledge and apologize for: The nurse for her poor attendance which led to his questioning her reliability, and the physician for his lack of candor and honesty.

Next, each participant made an explicit request of the other — she requested that he be more sincere, and he requested that she be more reliable. After that, each made a commitment to trust the other going forward — he by reassigning the duties back to the nurse, and she by not further questioning his truthfulness.

It is important to note that this last step is often the most difficult. Putting yourself in a position of vulnerability to another person’s actions when that person has previously let you down is a difficult thing to do; however, it is an essential ingredient to restoring trust.

Managing trust in the workplace is profoundly difficult and restoring trust even more so. But it is not impossible and it is absolutely necessary if you are to thrive as an organization. If you face distrust in your workplace or would like to learn more about it, I recommend two books: The Thin Book of Trust by Charles Feltman and Steven Covey’s The Speed of Trust. And if you need some additional help, we at Affinity HR Group are here to help.

Claudia St. John is President of Affinity HR Group and a Strategic Partner of the HRGroup, a provider of Human Resource support services, including hiring practices, compensation programs, talent development and more. For additional info, or to suggest a topic for a future article, please email [email protected].

About the Author

Claudia St. John, SPHR

Claudia St. John is President of Affinity HR Group and a Strategic Partner of the HRGroup, a provider of Human Resource support services, including hiring practices, compensation programs, talent development and more. For additional info, or to suggest a topic for a future article, email[email protected].