Years ago, I attended a workshop given by Jean Houston called “The Sacred Wound of Betrayal.” Her key message was that acts of betrayal, large and small, happen in virtually every personal or professional relationship. The important thing is how we deal with and resolve them, and the breaches of trust that follow.
Later I became acquainted with Dennis and Michelle Reina and their innovative book, “Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships in Your Organization.” They have now published “Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace: Seven Steps to Renew Confidence, Commitment and Energy” (Berrett-Koehler, 2010), which I believe many advisors will find an invaluable resource to maximize healing communication and transform workplace relationships.
Olivia Mellan: How did you come to focus on the subject of workplace trust and betrayal?
Dennis Reina: During my experience in government, higher education and corporations—and later on in consulting with Michelle—I saw that the success of any type of change initiative was dependent on one factor: the level of trust in the working relationships of the people involved.
I became very interested in understanding this thing called trust. It was highly complex and emotionally provocative, and meant very different things to different people. Some thought it meant honesty; others, dependability, and still others, competence.
That spurred me to study trust in my doctoral work. I found different academic papers on the definition of trust, but no universal behavioral model that tied it all together. This gave birth to our initial research on defining the behaviors that build trust and break it, and the steps to help rebuild it.
OM: How would you define the central thrust of your work?
DR: The importance of trust in the workplace is universally understood. Where trust is present, individuals, teams and organizations are more confident, committed and energized. They deal better with change, dare to think and work outside the box, and deliver smarter, faster results.
Yet trust is fragile. In the workplace, as in life, it will be built and broken in all kinds of relationships. That’s a natural outcome of human interaction. The simple truth, though, is that when trust has been broken, people feel betrayed. What’s more, betrayal is universal. Everyone has been betrayed, and everyone has betrayed others. It’s how we deal with betrayal, or broken trust, that really matters. The key to sustaining trust at work is to know how to rebuild it, again and again.
OM: My understanding is that betrayal can happen in large and small ways, and both can have a powerful effect.
DR: Minor betrayals are pervasive and erode trust over time. Among the most common are gossiping, backbiting, finger-pointing, blaming, hiding mistakes, avoiding accountability, withholding information, taking credit for others’ work, spinning the truth, and turning a blind eye to colleagues in need.
In most workplaces, the accumulation of these “little” betrayals becomes a big problem, negatively impacting people’s productivity and performance. According to our research, 90% of employees report that they feel the effects of eroded trust on a daily basis.
Major betrayals affect people suddenly, deeply and dramatically. At the organizational level, they are commonly associated with mismanagement of sweeping changes, such as layoffs, reorganizations, and mergers and acquisitions. At the interpersonal level, they often occur through single hurtful acts, from violating significant confidences to spreading lies about others for personal gain.
OM: Take us through the steps for healing and rebuilding trust once a betrayal has occurred.
DR: Whether you have been betrayed, betrayed someone else, or have a role such as manager, team leader, or HR representative where you want or need to help others, we recommend a seven-step process that can help you learn to muster courage, mend broken trust, and move forward.
Step One is to observe and acknowledge what happened. Betrayal is most often experienced as a loss: the loss of what was or what could have been. To heal and rebuild trust, it’s important to acknowledge that loss, and recognize its impact on yourself and others.
OM: Let’s say you gossiped about someone at work and what you said got back to them.
DR: You need to apologize for the trust-breaking behavior. In the apology, it’s important to acknowledge the impact your actions had on other people, even if what you did was unintentional. For example, you might say, “I gossiped about how you and Joe were spending lots of time together outside of work. I recognize now that by doing so I spread rumors that weren’t true and that those rumors have hurt your professional reputation and may be holding you back from future opportunities.”
OM: What’s next?
DR: Step Two is to allow feelings to surface. Give yourself permission to feel your emotions, whatever they may be, and find proper ways to express them. Write them down, talk them through with a close friend or co-worker or release them through exercise. This is the way to begin working through broken trust.
OM: Let’s say you criticized a subordinate’s work in a staff meeting and it not only hurt her feelings, but made her worry about her chances for advancement.
DR: Demonstrate that you are sensitive to the impact of your actions. Express your feelings of remorse for having hurt her: “I see that you are angry and I have hurt you. I understand that I have betrayed your trust and I sense that you are worried about your career. I am very ashamed of what I did and I am very disappointed in myself.”
Step Three is to get and give support. If you’re the one who’s been hurt, ask for help to recognize where you’re stuck, and shift from blaming to problem-solving. Reach out to your inner circle, such as trusted managers, mentors, coaches or colleagues, and be open to their support.
If you hurt someone else, remember to acknowledge what you are feeling (Step Two). You may have been rushing to meet a deadline or dashing out the door; or you might have had negative feelings about the person whom you slammed, and now you may feel somewhat remorseful. You may need to talk with someone who can listen non-judgmentally to you before you can reach out to the person you hurt.
OM: In the earlier example, when you humiliated a staff member by criticizing her publicly, what can you do?
DR: Offer to help her in any way you can. You might say, “I can imagine you don’t trust me anymore, but I am willing to listen to all you need to say to me. I also offer to meet with you privately and look at your total job performance in a more complete way—highlighting what you do well and how you can improve on your areas of opportunity for growth.”
Step Four is to reframe the experience. Look at the bigger picture and take into account what might be going on for others—they’re “only human” as well—or the business reasons behind your company’s decisions. If you’re feeling unusually tired, stressed, or vulnerable, for instance, how might that be contributing to your reactions or behavior? Consider, too, the personal choices and opportunities now in front of you, including potential benefits.
OM: In the case of having gossiped about a co-worker, what’s an example of reframing the experience?
DR: You could say something like “I now see that I gossiped about you so that I would be accepted into the group. When I came to the department, I felt so lonely and isolated. That doesn’t excuse my behavior; it’s just that I see now why I did it.”
OM: Does that lead to accepting responsibility?
DR: Taking responsibility is actually Step Five. You’re not responsible for others’ behavior, but you are responsible for your reaction. Own up to what is yours to own, acknowledge the lessons learned, and ask how you can help improve the current situation.
OM: Suppose you told co-workers about two married co-workers spending time outside the office together in what appeared to be an illicit relationship, and one of the two heard about it and explained you were wrong.
DR: You owe your co-workers an apology. Own that which is yours to own and pay back more than was perceived to have been taken away: “I was totally out of line in telling others about what you did with your time. I’m going to go back to the group and say that I shared information I shouldn’t have. I’ll let them know that I didn’t know that you were both taking the same certification class and that your relationship was purely professional.”
OM: What if this apology doesn’t go far enough in assuaging the recipient’s emotions?
DR: Step Six is to forgive yourself and others. Forgiving doesn’t mean excusing; it means acknowledging how the breach of trust has affected you. Determine what needs to happen for forgiveness to take place, so you can release yourself from energy-depleting emotions like anger, fear and grief.
OM: Suppose you’re the one who needs to be forgiven?
DR: Ask what needs to be said or done for the person you betrayed to forgive you, but don’t expect it as a matter of course.
It’s fine to ask, “Is there anything else I can do so that you can forgive me?” as long as you don’t pressure them to respond immediately. One thing you can do is to forgive yourself; not to let yourself off the hook in any way, but to acknowledge that you are human and you made a mistake.
OM: That’s very important. Many times we keep beating ourselves up again and again for having made a mistake and hurt someone else.
DR: It’s self-defeating, and it serves no one.
Step Seven is to let go and move on. You may not forget a betrayal, but you can make a conscious choice to look forward rather than stay stuck in the past. Acknowledge what you have learned, and move on.
OM: And if you’re the betrayer?
DR: Promise not to repeat the hurtful act to the person you’ve wronged or anyone else. Share your understanding of the impact of your actions and the lessons you learned. We don’t feel good about ourselves after we’ve betrayed someone.
The innovators I’ve interviewed for this series address different pieces of the complex puzzle that constitutes our work life. We can all benefit from the tools and processes they’ve developed to facilitate conflict resolution, repair breaches of trust and become more effective followers.
These days, many of us spend a great deal of our time and energy on work-related issues and concerns. By adopting these tools and techniques, we can transform our own workplace with deeper connections and increased personal and professional fulfillment.
Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Client Connection: How Advisors Can Build Bridges That Last, available through the Investment Advisor Bookstore. She also offers money psychology teleclasses and facilitates intergenerational retreats for wealthy families. E-mail Olivia at email@example.com.