Last week we got into how trust works in the workplace.
If you haven’t read that post, take a look. We’re picking up right where we left off, with Dennis and Michelle Reina’s 3 types of trust.
As a refresher...Dennis and Michelle nuance trust by pointing out its three different manifestations:
Capability - The kind of trust we build when we do our work with competency, confidence, and a good attitude.
Character - The trust we build when we do what we say we’ll do and work for the shared interests of the team.
Communication - The trust we build when we’re generous with information and are open with our teammates. We’re eager to encourage, and we’re willing to have tough conversations when needed.
We’ve written about tough conversations before. Today we’ll share practical strategies for having tough trust conversations, specifically.
Before we do, an important note: As we talk about trust-breaking in this post, we’re talking about a category of mundane, minor, day-to-day disappointments and offenses. There’s a more serious category of offenses that violate basic human dignity—those situations aren’t ambiguous. The breaches in trust we’re talking about are ambiguous. They’re the kind where we might be tempted to make a judgment without knowing if the other person meant harm, or without considering whether or not we were actually clear about our expectations. These situations call for exploration, and that’s what the strategies in this post are about. Their seriousness comes from the fact that small misunderstandings and offenses accumulate and take a cumulative toll.
So here’s where we’re at: Your trust supply at work is depleted. You have a coworker who, for reasons that have to do with either capability, character, or communication, you no longer trust like you did before.
What can you do to rebuild?
How do you start, have, and follow-through with a tough trust conversation?
Step 1: Mindset Check
As we often say here, on Counter-Stories: We’re all human, and none of us is perfect. In this case, what that means is: We will all unintentionally break trust with one another. We know how trust works—every interaction either deposits or withdraws trust—but we are incapable of a perfect record. Not every interaction will build trust but not necessarily because we aren’t trying.
The mindset check:
Trust will erode at some point. No one is perfect.
Because trust will erode, you will have to decide whether or not to address it.
There is no solid foundation of trust that hasn’t been built by addressing disappointment or betrayal. In order for your team to function, you will have to address trust erosions.
Step 2: Posture Check
At their core, the breached-trust situations we’re talking about are issues of experience vs. expectation. When our experience doesn’t meet our expectations, we choose an approach:
We insert an absolute judgment, and we’re certain about it. We use that judgement (“She’s not trustworthy”) and continue looking for evidence to support that story. On a cultural level, this is how workplaces end up motivating through blame, shame, and guilt. In conversations, this is when we start off with an accusation and are met with denial, fear, and defensiveness. Essentially: We tend to find what we’re looking for.
Or: We make an initial judgment and explore it with curiosity. We notice the gap between our experience and our expectations, and we start a conversation to learn more. When we posture ourselves with curiosity, we make room for failure to become a learning opportunity. In other words, when we address situations of broken trust with a spirit of exploration, we create the possibility for a different pathway: one that gets beyond, and even flourishes through, the brokenness.
The posture check:
Voice — Start with first-person storytelling: “Here’s what I experienced.” “Here’s the story I’m telling myself.” You’ve experienced a breach in trust, but there’s more to learn.
Stance — Approach as a teammate with concern for this person, as an individual. Regardless of hierarchy, you are dependent on one another to do your work well.
Gesture — Leave space for them to tell their side. The strongest gesture of curiosity in a tough conversation is to ask, but then to listen well. Meaning, listen with the intent to understand (empathetic listening) instead of listening to formulate a response.
Step 3: Corrective Check
Once you’re in your peacemaker mindset, and you’ve approached the trust conversation with a posture of curiosity, and you’re exploring the gap between your expectations and experience, the question is: What will you find?
In trust conversations, we tend to find out one of three things:
Our expectations weren’t clear — When our coworker acted in a way that betrayed our trust, it was a clarity issue; they didn’t understand.
Our expectations were unrealistic — The expectations couldn’t be fulfilled because they were unattainable, skewed, or uninformed.
Our expectations were clear and realistic, and they weren’t met — Our expectations were right on, but the other person failed to fulfill them.
What happens next is the corrective action, and that action depends on the diagnosis (above).
If your coworker didn’t meet expectations because the expectations were off, the corrective action is to amend or clarify those expectations—or to provide the resources and accountability they lacked but need to succeed.
If your coworker had the clarity and ability to meet expectations but didn’t come through, the corrective action starts with them recognizing their failure, regretting it, and asking forgiveness for the negative impact it caused.
You don’t hold their mistakes against them anymore. You give them a word of forgiveness: a chance to recover, to reinvest, to rebuild.
And you don’t do it because you trust them at this moment.
You do it because in a healthy workplace culture, where it’s okay to admit mistakes, minor failures aren’t deal-breakers. Which is a good thing, for all of us.
And because you know: An accumulation of small, unaddressed disappointments can ruin a workplace’s entire foundation—but they don’t have to. Not if someone with the long game—to fight for flourishing, together—speaks first.
Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at email@example.com.