Repairing Broken Trust on a Team

iStock_000005213503XSmallBy Laura Gates

I often hear similar reasons from leadership teams from very different organizations for why they can’t accomplish the work they’ve set out to do together:

1.    I can’t trust “so and so.” 

And when I ask, “Well, did you talk to “so and so” about the issue you’re having with them?”

I always get the same answer:

2.    “I didn’t have time to talk to them.”

What’s wrong with this picture?

We talk about the need to “earn” trust and “build” trust, but by that we typically mean, “You need to behave in a way that I perceive is in my own best interest, and when you act differently, I won’t trust you. And then to regain my trust, you need to prove to me that you are worthy of it.”

In other words, trust is the onus of the other person.

To exacerbate that dynamic, we don’t take the time to clarify our fears, assumptions and conclusions that have gotten stirred up by the other person. In most cases, we say we’re too busy to have the difficult conversation. So the mistrust builds. The person becomes one of “them” added to the list of those we can’t trust, and therefore, can’t collaborate with.

What’s challenging here is we feel justified in our lack of trust — goodness knows, the problems can’t be our fault! It has to be that Other Person, because, hey, look at what they did five years ago when we worked on that project together and it failed, and clearly it was their fault. How could anyone trust them?

This kind of dynamic is surprisingly common and very destructive to collaboration, not to mention the bottom line.

I propose we look at trust from a different perspective.

Instead of my needing you to behave in ways that I deem trustworthy, from which I can bestow my trust upon you, what if I view trust as a mutual act of co-creation that involves both of us trusting each others’ intent?

This approach creates a different type of dynamic altogether. We are not needing to prove to each other that we are worthy of the other person’s trust, we can simply notice when feelings of mistrust arise, and because we are each taking responsibility for creating trust, for essentially being a starting point for trust, we can then have a dialogue to clarify our assumptions and judgments that are getting in the way.

This sounds simple, and frankly it is. The hard part is not so much sitting down face-to-face to have the conversation. The hard part is letting go of needing to be right about whatever injustice or infraction we feel that person committed.

And of course conversations such as these require time — the one thing we feel we never have enough of. Investing time in building relationships is a healing balm for lack of trust. When we take the time to get to know people, as, well, people, it’s harder to assign blame. By getting to know them, we can also better understand why they behave the way they do, which builds mutual respect and empathy.

Typically our behaviors come from our childhood. Finding out more about the people we work with, their background and context, helps us better understand why they behave the way they do, which is often different from our approach, given our unique set of life experiences that dictate our behaviors.

If we can truly believe that everyone is doing the best they can with the level of awareness and experiences they possess, if we can bring caring and empathy for them as fallible human beings, we begin to humanize them, a crucial step towards building trust and creating healthy collaborative teams.

Where do you assign blame vs. trust? Where do you avoid having the difficult conversation with the excuse that you don’t have the time?

If you’d like to know more about teambuilding and collaboration, check out our upcoming Shared Mastery seminar November 4-8, 2013.

Laura Gates is a Culture Change Partner, Senior Executive Coach and Facilitator at Learning as Leadership, where she’s worked for 19 years.

  1. A very interesting article (for which read, it agrees with my position substantially).

    Seriously, though, your identification of trust as being something that most of us insist we will not offer without the other person being in certain ways is spot on.

    But, if trust is “a mutual act of co-creation…”, is that not still placing on the other person an expectation that they behave, or maybe feel, in a certain way? Aren’t you saying that trust might not be possible if the other will not join in with the “taking responsibility for creating trust”?

    If you believe we are 100% responsible for our lives, isn’t the only way forward to extend trust unconditionally from the word ‘go’?

    You’ll have to be able to deal with the slaps in the face that subsequently occur but surely the other person is likely to administer just as many slaps in the face in the co-creation process.

    Actually, I suggest they will administer fewer because they don’t experience an expectation that they are going to join in (and, of course, one’s expectations are usually interpreted by the other as demands). After all, the more open we are, the more attractive we are.

    1. Laura Gates says:

      Jeremy – you are welcome! Hope it was not too painful! – Laura

  2. Russ Kintner says:

    Well why don’t you just pick up a hammer and hit me right between the eyes while you’re at it? The more I read the more I began to see my image reflected in the mirror of your words. I’ve gotta go fix something. Right now!

    Thanks Laura. Seriously, thanks.

    1. Laura Gates says:


      It sounds like you took personal responsibility by exiting a situation that was no optimal for you.

  3. Sheri says:

    I adhere to the value of taking responsibility for interpersonal conflicts. However I think it’s overly simplistic to assume that one person’s integrity will inspire the same intention in another. The creation of a trustworthy collaboration is dependent on all players. I recently exited a collaboration because my efforts to address toxic dynamics and what I consider amoral maneuvering, was met with veiled diplomacy and backstabbing. Nevertheless I vocalized my concerns and it illuminated for me the sad reality of what I was dealing with. My work was perniciously hijacked, and on the surface my collaborators are virtuous beings. I left the project as a sole proprietor, but the residual betrayal lingers. Sizing up a person’s character requires vigilant scrutiny. One person’s truth is another person’s delusion it seems. Going forward I will be exceedingly careful with collaborating with folks who demonstrate a level of health that enables them to fully live in truth, and not some elaborate fiction disguised as truth.

  4. Whether or not it’s simplistic to assume one’s person’s integrity will inspire others is a side issue, I think. My main point is that that is the best you hope for. You can’t *make* another person behave (or think or feel) in a certain way, and trying to do so may well be met with understandable resistance.

    Your assertion, Sheri, that “the creation of a trustworthy collaboration is dependent on all players” is a belief (I’m tempted to say, just a belief) which doesn’t have to be true for you.

    You will get slaps in the face, as you seem to have done, Sheri. But you haven’t suggested that being in a different way would have generated a better (more useful) outcome. And I don’t think it would.

    Leo Buscaglia said “To love is to risk not being loved in return. To hope is to risk pain. To try is to risk failure, but risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.”

    I am sure he wouldn’t mind me adding, to trust is to risk not being trusted in return, but the greater hazard is not to trust at all.

    1. Sheri says:

      Yes- I do feel my integrity is intact knowing that I took care of my side of the street by putting all the issues on the table. It served to illuminate for me that I needed to seek litigation to remove myself. The morally twisted responses I received from my collaborators made that clear, and I would not have necessarily had that clarity if I didn’t risk engaging in a process of addressing the issues with them. True- it’s necessary to trust, but I feel it’s also necessary to be intelligently guarded. That’s the lesson I’m taking from this. I was naive. Others forewarned me that the people I was collaborating with were not trustworthy people. For me personally I will tread with a reasonably open mind and heart, but will be more discerning and discriminating as to who I risk my vulnerability and trust with. It’s a matter of self care.

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