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.
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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.