How to rebuild betrayed trust!

Yesterday, I met with a dear friend, who I’ve known a long time. My friend’s project is in dire financial straits, and drastic change is the solution. All staff at the project face redundancy at the end of August, the situation is that difficult. Such a situation is becoming all too common in the third sector, among voluntary and community organisations, who have seen local government support all but disappear entirely, and competition for donors and sponsors becoming ever more competitive.

Sliced by whole appleMy friend understands the situation. The often tenuous nature of funding has been an element of this type of work for a long time. Unfortunately, since 2010, with the advent of austerity in the UK, the position has become exacerbated. However, what has rankled most with my friend is the manner in which the governing body of the project have managed the change process.

The ineptitude of the board has led to the destruction of the trust between them and the staff. The staff feel betrayed by the board. So much so that people have switched off and are just going through the motions at work. I know these people well, and this is not how they have behaved in the past. In fact, quite the opposite. So things have come to a sorry position for this to occur.

My conversation with my friend led me to reflect on the often tenuous nature of trust and the role that positive relationships play in building that trust. Ironically, relationships are also the key to moving people out of betrayal into trust.

In their book ‘Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace – building effective relationships in your organisation’, Reina and Reina suggest some steps for using connections for building trust. I explore the steps below and address how they might apply to you as an existing or emerging leader.

  1. Observe and acknowledge what’s so – change inevitably has an impact on employees – often to their morale and productivity. Fullan describes this as the implementation gap – that period of transition between the original ways of doing things and the internalisation of the new methods required. As an effective leader, you should be alert to this and acknowledge what employees are experiencing to demonstrate you are in touch with what is happening.
  2. Allow employees to surface feelings – In recognising what staff are going through, as an effective leader, you should provide employees with permission and space to vent their feelings in a constructive manner. I used a process called ‘Air and Share’ that gave a designated period at the beginning of each staff meeting or event for any gripes, moans, or groans. I responded to these as best I could, took away ideas or comments for further consideration, and explained matters that I had little or no control over. The agreement was that once the Air and Share period finished, staff were expected to focus positively for the remainder of the agenda. That agreement did not preclude challenge or critique later on in the programme, but it did prohibit self-fixated ramblings.
  3. Give employees support – as an effective leader; you need to support the change process. Staff will have transitional requirements in any change process, and if unsupported, they will feel betrayed. I focused on providing, as far as possible, individual support sessions for the major managers, group sessions for full and part-time staff, and a lot of ‘walking the walk’ – being visible and available to support staff, while reinforcing the messages of change.
  4. Reframe the experience by putting it into a larger context – while often we have little choice over the changes experienced, we do have a choice as to our reactions to change. Change that brings a feeling of betrayal has an emotional consequence and will leave individuals feeling vulnerable, and their actions or choices might then become unhelpful or seen as inappropriate. Often staff need help to understand this and to see the change as part of a bigger context. Communicating this and continually engaging with them at this level is critical in ensuring that they are aware that they choose their actions. The more they can understand this, the more they are likely to take responsibility for those actions.
  5. Leaders should assume responsibility for their role in the process – change is often messy, lacking in pace and sometimes seemingly pointless! It is therefore not helpful to deny errors of judgement or mistakes in practice. A fundamental basis for trust in the workplace is telling the truth … and your role is to reverse the spiral of distrust. You do this through honesty, transparency and a focus on solutions, or just plain apologise if it is not possible!
  6. Forgiveness – a persistent ‘blame’ culture in any organisation is toxic to the individuals concerned and to the team as a whole. It undermines trust and morale, and negatively impacts on productivity, creativity and innovation, as well as on people’s willingness to commit or ‘go the extra mile’. I found this in some local authorities in which I worked. I believe it is better to have staff problem solving than blaming each other, and enabling all concerned to understand why a mistake [betrayal] occurred. In that way, you do not build on the historical guilt burden but release people’s energy, focus and inclination to achieve on a bigger scale.

So, have you been betrayed at work? How did you respond? In what way were attempts made to remedy the situation? What solutions succeeded, and what didn’t? How might you improve your effectiveness as a leader in building trust, either on a regular basis or as a result of a betrayal?

I love meaningful dialogue. I am always happy to listen and ready to help.  Please reach out to me if I might be of value to you.

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