Ten Concrete Steps to Rebuild Trust

April 23, 2019

Several authors (including Stephen M.R. Covey) have suggested that trust between people is like a bank account. The balance is what determines the level of trust at any point in time, and it is directional.

I might trust you today more than you trust me. We make deposits and withdrawals in the trust account nearly every day with the things we say and do. Usually the deposits are made in small steps that add up to a large balance over time.

Unfortunately, withdrawals can be massive due to what I call “The Ratchet Effect.” All prior trust may be wiped out quickly. Nobody is happy when trust is lost.

I believe trust withdrawals can lead to a long term higher level of trust if they are handled well. Just as in a marriage when there is a major falling out, if the situation is handled well by both parties in a cooperative spirit, the problem can lead to an even stronger relationship in the long term.

Let’s investigate ten steps that can allow the speedy rebuilding of trust.

1. Act Swiftly

Major trust withdrawals can be devastating, and the trauma needs to be treated as quickly as possible. Just as a severe bodily injury requires immediate emergency care, so does the bleeding of emotional capital need to be stopped after a major letdown. The situation is not going to heal by itself, so both parties need to set aside normal routines in order to focus significant energy on regaining equilibrium.

2. Verify care

Both people should spend some time remembering what the relationship felt like before the problem. In most cases there is a true caring for the other person, even if it is eclipsed by the current hurt and anger. It may be a stretch for some people to mentally set aside the issue, but it would be helpful to do that, if just as an exercise.

If the problem had never happened, would these people care about each other? If one person cannot recognize at least the potential for future care, then the remedial process is blocked until that happens.

3. Establish a desire to do something about it

If reparations are to be made, both people must cooperate. If there was high value in the relationship before the breach, then it should be possible to visualize a return to the same level or higher level of trust.

It may seem out of reach if the problem was a major let down, but it is critical that both parties really want the hurt to be resolved.

4. Admit fault and accept blame

The person who made the breach needs to admit what happened to the other person. If there is total denial of what occurred, then no progress can be made. Try to do this without trying to justify the action.

Focus on what happened, even if it was an innocent gaffe. Often there is an element of fault on the part of both parties, but even if one person is the only one who did anything wrong, an understanding of fault is needed in this step.

Sometimes neither party did anything particularly wrong, but the circumstances led to trust being lost.

5. Disagree without being disagreeable

If both parties cannot agree on exactly what happened, it is not the end of trust forever.  The first rule is to disagree with a constructive spirit while assuming the best intent on the part of the other person.

Suspend judgment on culpability, if necessary, to keep the investigation on the positive side. This is a part of caring for the other person and the relationship.

6. Ask for forgiveness

It sounds so simple, but many people find it impossible to verbalize the request for forgiveness, yet a pardon is exactly what has to happen to enable the healing process.

The problem is that saying “I forgive you” is easy to say but might be hard to do when emotions are raw. True and full forgiveness is not likely to happen until the final healing process has occurred. At this point it is important to affirm that forgiveness is at least possible.

7. Determine the cause

This is a kind of investigative phase where it is important to know what happened in order to make progress. It is a challenge to remain calm and be as objective with the facts as possible.

Normally, the main emotion is one of pain, but anger will often accompany the pain. Both people need to describe what happened, because the view from one side will be significantly different from the opposite view.

Go beyond describing what happened, and discuss how you felt about what happened. Do not cut this discussion off until both parties have exhausted their descriptions of what occurred and how they felt about it.

Sometimes it helps in this stage to do some reverse role playing where each person tries to verbalize the situation from the perspective of the other.

8. Develop a positive path forward

The next step is the mutual problem solving process. Often two individuals try to do this without the preparatory work done above, which is more difficult.

The thing to ask in this phase is “what would have to happen to restore your trust in me to at least the level where it was before.” Here, some creativity can really help.

You are looking for a win-win solution where each party feels some real improvement has been made. Do not stop looking for solutions just because it is difficult to find them.

If you have gotten this far, there is going to be some set of things that can begin the healing process. Develop a path forward together. What new behaviors are you both going to exhibit with each other to start fresh.

9. Agree to take action

There needs to be a formal agreement to take corrective action. Usually this agreement requires modified behaviors on the part of both people.

Be as specific as possible about what you and the other person are going to do differently. The only way to hold each other accountable for progress is to have a clear understanding of what will be different.

10. Check back on progress

Keep verifying that the new behaviors are working and modify them, if needed, to make positive steps every day.

As the progress continues, it will start getting easier, and the momentum will increase. Make sure to smell the roses along the way. It is important to celebrate progress as it occurs, because that reinforcement will encourage continued progress.

If there is a another set-back, it is time to cycle back on the steps above and not give up on the relationship just because the healing process is a challenging one.

In many cases, it is possible to restore trust to a higher level than existed before the breach. This method is highly dependent on the sincerity with which each person really does want the benefits of a high trust relationship with the other person.

That outcome is really good news because it allows a significant trust withdrawal to become an opportunity instead of a disaster.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 600 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Rip Up The Agenda

November 29, 2014

All I needOne of my friends in the consulting business wrote an insightful article entitled “Throw Away Your Integration Plan.” The friend is John Pancoast of Acquisition Solutions, a firm that helps organizations achieve more effective mergers or acquisitions.

His article was about having the flexibility to know when the plan you drew up before a merger was announced should be abandoned for another course of action based on some unanticipated development.

The main idea makes sense to me. No original plan can anticipate everything that is possible to happen, especially in a multifaceted endeavor like a merger.

Sticking religiously to an a-priori version of the path forward will produce suboptimal results at best and may even be disastrous.

It is not just mergers and acquisitions where we need the flexibility to change a plan based on new information. We deal with the need for flexibility in every area of our lives.

For example, the following incident actually happened to me in mid-career, and it illustrated the importance of remaining nimble.

I once spent a day in a workshop with my managers to develop some strategies. We planned the time carefully because time is the ultimate scarce resource. I had published a detailed agenda for the entire day.

When I walked into the room to start the meeting, I took one look at their faces and realized they were not in the same frame of mind as they were when we made up the agenda.

Something traumatic had just happened with one of the benefits programs, and their faces told me they were preoccupied trying to deal with the damage.

I held up the agenda on a single sheet of paper and said, “I can see by your body language that this is not where you folks want to spend your time today. Am I right?” They all nodded kind of sheepishly.

So, with great fanfare, I ripped the agenda into tiny pieces and threw the confetti into the air. I’ll never forget the look on their faces as the simulated snowflakes fluttered to the floor all around me. We had a good and constructive meeting after that.

This article is not suggesting that making plans is fruitless. We need to have a nominal plan for every activity under the assumptions we are aware of at the time.

We must always test whether that plan is still the right course when we attempt to execute it in the future. Here are a few tips to remember:

1. Be alert to changes in body language. Often you can read anxiety with a current plan in the faces of your coworkers.

2. Build trust. Create an atmosphere that is real rather than one of playing games.

3. Ask for opinions. If you ask, people will tell you if they are concerned.

4. Verify the plan is current. Test to see if conditions or assumptions have changed.

5. Be willing to rip up the agenda. It creates a significant event and sends a message of care rather than rigid implementation.

6. Use a revision date. Plans change with time, so if you have a file with the plans, use a revision date so people are aware they are subject to changing conditions.

Make your plans carefully and logically, but be prepared to change them when conditions require flexibility. Doing so will keep you nimble and relevant to current conditions. It is a great way to be effective.


Strategic Jargon

February 16, 2013

dentistDoes your strategic plan clarify or complicate? When organizations do a strategic plan, a bunch of specific words are used to describe the various pieces, but you would be surprised how those words are often used incorrectly. Many people hate to work on strategy because it is either eternal or terrifying, like going to the dentist. This problem fascinates me, because I do a lot of strategic work with corporations, not-for-profit groups, and educational institutions. I also teach strategic thinking at two universities. One cure for confusing strategic plans is to use the jargon correctly.

For example, it is common to have the mission and vision statements mixed. I have written about that problem and given some typical examples in another article entitled “Mission and Vision Essentials.” Another common sticking point is getting the strategy separated from the tactics. Strategy is the overarching way you are going to move from the current situation to the vision, and tactics are the detailed actions you will take to accomplish the strategy.

Most facilitators have an order they prefer when helping groups with strategy. I believe it is not essential to have a rigid pattern, but I generally prefer to start out with the values. Reason: Values are a kind of foundation upon which the other elements rest. To me, putting values late in the process feels like digging the foundation after the house is already constructed.

A key element in most strategic work is a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. This work is the basis for determining an intelligent strategy. It consists of two views of the organization. In the first view, we look through a “microscope” at the internal strengths and weaknesses of the current organization. The second view is looking through a “telescope” at the environment around the organization to determine the opportunities and threats.

The SWOT analysis can be a time consuming and very boring process. It does not need to be. Facilitators can move through this exercise by breaking up a large group into four subgroups for the exercise. The use of creative techniques, like giving a prize for the most novel idea, can keep the atmosphere light. Of course, like in any brainstorm activity, it is essential to have a “safe” environment where the ideas are just captured, but not critiqued during the session.

One technique that I like to use is a “two wave” approach to the ideas. Let’s suppose we just completed a 10 minute discussion of the “Opportunities” part of SWOT. I then will say something like this, “That is a really great list of opportunities. We could stop here, but I want to challenge the group.

Most of these ideas came quickly and were from the top of your minds. I am sure there are additional creative and dynamite ideas still lurking in the corners of your brains. Let’s take another 10 minutes and see if we can double the number of opportunities on our list.” That process brings out some highly creative ideas, because all the obvious ones have already been mentioned.

I do not use this technique for all sections of the SWOT, as that would get old. It works best for the opportunities section.

After doing a SWOT, it is possible to identify the overarching strategy and tactics. A mistake made by most organizations is to have too many strategic thrusts in the analysis. The reason for a strategic plan is to focus effort on the vital few activities. If you have 32 high priority strategies, you will have trouble making much progress. I encourage groups to narrow the analysis down to three strategies: perhaps four.

One additional activity that is extremely important, but often left out by groups, is to document the behaviors we expect of team members. Without specific behaviors stated in advance, it is difficult to hold people accountable for doing them.

I use a story to illustrate what the jargon on a strategic plan means. Sometimes this helps groups focus on the work and not get muddled up in the terminology. Here is a typical story I use for that.

I liken the strategic process to taking a trip. I want to go from New York City to Toronto. My mission is to have a safe and enjoyable trip. I am considerate and make sure people on the other end are aware of my plans (values). Reaching Toronto is my vision; I can see the skyline in my mind.
I now look at my resources: my late model car is a strength; the fact that the tires are almost bald is a weakness. I see on the map there are some excellent highways (opportunities) but also there is some potential bad weather on the way (threats). I need to select the route and timing wisely.

I decide which day to leave and the route to take (my strategy). The plan is to stay in Toronto three nights, because I have two days worth of business to conduct. My goal is to drive there in 10 hours. I know it is not possible to get there in 9 hours, and I am willing to accept up to 12 hours if there is construction or other delays. There are contingency plans associated with potential problems.

Then I figure out what things to pack, decide what time to leave, and buy two new tires (tactics). I monitor my progress and determine my gas mileage along the way (measures). For example, I know it is necessary to reach Buffalo by 1 pm to make my timing goal. I drive within the speed limit, am courteous to other drivers, and I stop frequently enough to not get over tired (behaviors). I have a very good chance of having a good trip, which was my original mission.

Now if I can only get those SOBs in Toronto to sign my contract, I will be fine. Hold on a minute; maybe that is worth some planning as well. Maybe my vision in the first place should have been more about a signed contract than about seeing the Toronto Skyline. For that, I need to make sure my strategy achieves the true purpose for the trip, and make sure all parts of the plan align with that objective. In this case, I would have been wise to state the vision was to get a signed contract, and the trip to Toronto was one of the strategies. Now my strategic plan would stand a better chance of getting me what I really need.

The process of creating a strategic plan is fairly straightforward, yet many groups get tripped up with all these strange words, and come up with a plan that looks good on paper but does not work well in the real world. That is a colossal waste of time. Make sure you have someone who knows what he or she is doing lead the activities when creating your strategic plan.


Chances: Give Them and Take Them

September 2, 2012

I saw something in the social media a while ago, that said “Give chances: don’t take them.” I propose a different slant on the topic; I replace the word “don’t” with the word “and.” Since I am rather risk averse, the notion of not taking chances has a comforting ring to it. On the flip side, none of us can make progress in life without taking some kind of chances. Finding the right balance between taking calculated and strategic risks versus foolhardy ones is worthy of some analysis.

The trick is to determine the difference between smart risks and dumb ones. We need a system that helps us sort them out. Stop reading for a moment and focus on a personal risk that you have taken in the past year. Think about the process you used to sort through the risk/reward ratio and how you ultimately decided to make the plunge. In retrospect, would you do it again? Do you thank yourself for taking intelligent risks, even if sometimes they do not pan out?

My system is to have a good strategic plan for my life. It covers my professional as well personal life. Every year I renew the plan and refresh what I plan to do for the next year. Having a written plan allows me to turn down some tempting things without feeling guilty for missing something.

For example, this year I made a strategic decision to back off on some teaching to allow more time for product development. That meant sacrificing current income in order to have the potential for a better future. The result is not guaranteed, but the risk vs. reward tradeoff was a good one for me this year. I have also made some heavy investments in my speaking career that are already starting to pay off and are bringing me more speaking engagements on my topics of trust and leadership.

Having a plan helps me know which calculated risks might be the best moves to make. The plan is never perfect, nor do I adhere to it with shackled rigidity. I believe we need to be flexible and alert to possibilities we may not have considered before. Still, operating with a backdrop of a well-considered plan has been quite useful in my life. I recommend the practice to you, and I will send you my detailed system if you request it.

On giving chances, allowing ourselves and others to try things is a formula for enabling growth. We need to feel empowered to take a chance when it is prudent and encourage others to take responsible risks as well. Sometimes we also need to give second chances in order to reap the payoff.

If we are too quick to pull the plug when an attempt at something goes sour, then we limit the learning experiences that come from overcoming failures. I believe we learn as much from our failures as we do from our successes. We need to fail more often and make corrections to maximize the life lessons. It is all about learning.

For example, walking and talking are easy for most people. Recall what it is like for a child to learn to walk or talk. It is simply a series of numerous failures followed by support and more chances that allow the eventual learning to take place. But what if you had a stroke and had to learn these skills all over again? Thankfully, most of us never have to endure that agony. One person who did, and wrote insightfully about it, was Jill Bolte Taylor.

Jill wrote a wonderful book entitled, “My Stroke of Insight.” As a practicing brain surgeon, she suffered a massive stroke that destroyed the left side of her brain. In her book, she described the painful process to regain full control of her functions, with the dedicated help of her amazing mother. She literally had to relearn how to walk and talk while using only the right side of her brain. In the process, she discovered a kind of inner peace that is available to us all if we simply train ourselves to access it. I recommend this book to anyone who struggles with depression. It is not only about getting a second chance, but about the amazing personal skill of modifying our own thought patterns.

Giving second chances to ourselves and others is also an empowering activity. We allow the person to take ownership of the situation and figure out how to do better in the future. With this approach, people can take a creative and uplifting road to improvement rather than dwell in defeat.

In summary, if each of us would concentrate on taking intelligent chances with the right strategy and then extend chances if things go wrong, we would find the world to be happier and more productive.


Monsters Under the Bed

August 22, 2011

Even though I am a calcified boomer, I can still remember the fear of monsters under my bed. I was fearless when not conscious of a potential for danger, but as soon as my brother would suggest I look under the bed in case there were any monsters there, I would be up for the night. It is amazing how many noises there are in a house when your ears are poised to hear every sound. It can drive you nuts.

So it is in some work environments. As groups become fixated on the potential problems (internal or external), they lose the ability to be objective, and they enter a world of paranoia. A defensive posture emerges that can stifle creative progress.

On the flip side, organizations that play only offense can be blindsided easily by changing conditions brought on by the competition, changes in customer preference, or other external factors. The obvious place to be is a healthy balance where potential problems are anticipated, but the organization flexes its own muscle in an aggressive offensive strategy. Here are some ideas that can facilitate this balance.

Clarify Your Own Strategy

The companies that consistently win in the marketplace have a product and service pattern that perpetually leaves the competition in a “fast follower” position. Apple Inc. is an excellent example of a company that continually out-innovates the competition and thus enjoys the ability to shape the future marketplace. They do not always win (remember the Newton?), but their batting average is pretty high, and the number of “at bats” is incredible. The powerful combination of brilliant strategic moves and best-in-class product design capability creates an impressive stream of products. I suppose if you are a competitor of Apple, they are the monster under the bed.

Invest in Good Market Intelligence

The ability to “see around corners” is not based on clairvoyance. The roots of excellent anticipation are knowledge and keen instincts. Knowledge involves investing in a continual scan of what everyone else in the market is doing. Here are some examples of just a few of the numerous legitimate ways an organization can distill the essence of major moves by the competition:

• Monitor patent applications.
• Read the annual reports of the competition.
• Keep up with social networking chatter.
• Track the delivery of supplies to the competition.
• Note requests for local ordinance variations.
• Listen to the industry speculation.

Of course, many organizations play dirty and try to use eaves-dropping or other inappropriate methods to gather useful information. Illegal processes eventually give an organization the reputation for having ethical problems, which can directly affect market value. In addition, if employees are encouraged by management to use quasi-illegal tactics, it drains the moral fiber out of the organization, which leads to an ethical dry rot problem that eventually leads to collapse. In the internet age, few things can remain hidden for long.

Create Common Goals in Your Team

The ability to articulate a compelling vision of the future is an essential leadership trait. Once a vision is in place, it is time to enroll every soul in the organization behind it. When teams perform poorly due to conflict, usually it is a result of team members not sharing common goals. They think they are on the same page, but really they are subtly pulling in different directions. If the vision describes a better existence for all people in the organization and it is solidified by consistency from top management, then the common goal created will provide an incredible force for forward progress. I am reminded of the TV segment of a man pulling a giant 727 airplane. Concentrated, persistent force can move large objects.

Build Trust

Without trust on the team, all efforts to excel and avoid the monsters under the bed will produce tepid results. Reason: Low trust means the organization continually has to pay a tax on all interpersonal activities as described by Stephen M.R. Covey in The Speed of Trust. When trust is high, it allows the organization to see the dangers clearly and still move forward with courage born of solidarity. Internal monsters have a hard time surviving in a culture of high trust because transparency shines a light of truth to reveal there is nothing under the bed but dust bunnies. The resulting absence of fear means a good night’s sleep is possible.

It is important to manage uncertainty with courage and an appropriate level of caution. If the underpinnings of an organization are solid, it can ride the wave of market changes like a surfer; if the foundation is not solid, the organization can be swept under the current of competitive pounding waves and struggle to survive.