Can you rebuild broken trust?

by  Mary C. Schaefer  |  Leadership Development

“people ask me why it’s so hard to trust people, and i ask them why is it so hard to keep a promise?”

~ QTangel,

Risk management concept, arrow hitting an apple on a businessmanMy buddy, George, told me the other day about the new manager where he works, a nation-wide retail store chain. There are dozens of employees at his location.  The new store manager called an all-hands meeting and proceeded to tell them that they should consider themselves on notice that she was not above firing any one of them for any reason, any time.  That was part a significant part of her introductory address to her new constituents.

George went on to say that lots of people thought about looking for new jobs.  That happened a few months ago.  Since then, a few employees reported her for how she talked down to them or humiliated them.  Apparently even a customer complained.

Now the manager has turned over a new leaf.  She is being nicer.  She is not talking down to the employees.  George’s words were, “She talks to us more on our level.”  He also added, “I have no idea what she would have to do for me to trust her now though.”

When trust has been betrayed, can it be recovered?

I’ve been asking people this question.  What I hear is it would take some humongous proof before trust could be restored.  How?  How does one provide that proof?  George said this about his store manager, “She can act nice all she wants, but how do I know it’s sincere?”  Yeah.  I hear you.

Off the top of my head I know I would need to see consistency in the demonstration of humility and respect.  I also think I would need to see some version of a “debt paid.”  I would have to see or receive something from you that I know means something to you —something that takes vulnerability or sacrifice for you to admit or give.  But again, how do I gauge the sincerity?

I know I could consult studies, books, and the wisdom of the ages, but today I don’t want to.  I want to know what the wisdom-holders of this community think.

What are your thoughts?  When trust has been betrayed, can it be recovered and if so, how?

About The Author

Articles By mary-schaefer
Speaker, coach and trainer Mary Schaefer’s expertise is in creating work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive. She is a former HR manager. Find out more about how Mary helps managers empower themselves to make the most of their human resources with this special collection of articles selected for LCG readers:  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

D'Anne Hotchkiss  |  12 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Trust can be re-earned when a person apologizes for a past mistake, promises to behave differently, consistently behaves in that new way, and if necessary, as in the cases of addiction or infidelity, allows others to independently verify that behavior. It takes a long time to form new habits of acting, and even longer for others to believe the new habit is genuine.

Mary C Schaefer  |  12 Mar 2014  |  Reply

D’Anne, thank you for sharing that. What you said really wraps up the heart of rebuilding trust in a nutshell.

Jeff  |  12 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Nice post. Thank you. An important element here is forgiveness. You can choose to forgive someone but not yet trust them. If you steal my lawnmower, I can choose to forgive you and move forward positively with our relationship but not yet trust you enough to lend you my mower again. It’s the forgiveness element that must be present first and that’s the foundation in which trust can be built.

Mary C Schaefer  |  12 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Great example, Jeff. Yes, the element of forgiveness is important.

Lin  |  13 Mar 2014  | 

I would like to point out that forgiveness does not have to be the first step; a genuinely remorseful offender that is consistently demonstrating new restorative behavior can soften the unforgiving heart.

Peter Comrie  |  12 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Always a lovely subject. Lack of Trust is a heavy coat to wear, and Jeff reflects wisdom elegantly. It’s simple in our corner as we subscribe to the notion of: “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better yesterday”.

Mary C Schaefer  |  12 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Two excellent and poetic sound-bites, Peter.

“Lack of trust is a heavy coat to wear,” and “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better yesterday.”

Thank you for adding.

Hazel Oaey  |  12 Mar 2014  |  Reply

When someone acts with sincerity and has the desire to serve others (be in service) it shows in their actions, ability to be humble and at also the subtle energy level; people pick up signals at all levels.

Mary C Schaefer  |  13 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Hazel, I think your comment about a subtle energy level is important. We need to pay attention to the signals we get at an intuitive level too. Thank you for bringing that up.

Hazel Oaey  |  13 Mar 2014  | 

Thank you for responding Mary.

After I wrote this I saw news that Princeton University (and a Russian Scientist) are now conducting research into this. One clip “A Russian scientist has been studying the human energy field and is claiming that people can change the world simply by using their own energy”. One of my specialist interests (and I believe the comment to be true). Fascinating and can tell many stories.

Mary C Schaefer  |  13 Mar 2014  | 

Thanks for adding that, Hazel. My journey has brought me to the same conclusion.

Matt Schmidt  |  12 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Trust can be re-earned as long as actions are genuine and consistent. Some people can talk a good game and come off as trying to build rapport but the message must be followed through and reinforced.

Mary C Schaefer  |  13 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Thanks for bringing up the word “genuine” again. D’Anne mentioned it too. I realize it has a slightly different meaning than the word, “sincere,” that I have been using. Looking for genuine action and intention is an important consideration too.

Jane Perdue  |  13 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Thoughtful post, Mary! Repairing trust is a two-way commitment. The transgressor must commit to righting the wrongs, and the aggrieved to giving the benefit of the doubt. A former business colleague trashed me over pretty thoroughly but swore to making it right. I could never see how things were being made right. That’s when I learned about confirmation bias. I doubted their ability to be trustworthy ever again given the depth of the betrayal, and I never saw the evidence that they were trying…because that isn’t what I was looking for.

Mary C Schaefer  |  13 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Wow, Jane. That’s deep! It is a two-way commitment, isn’t it? And the thought of “confirmation bias” –you are so right. Something to be on the lookout for.

Kyle High  |  13 Mar 2014  |  Reply

It can be rebuilt when the two parties involved are willing to. The one who broke the trust needs to say sorry and to be sincere afterwards and has to work very hard to rebuild and earn trust. The one who has to suffer the wrong doing from the other needs to be willing to forgive and to give the other a second chance for her/him to improve.

It’s not easy, but if people realized that nobody is perfect and are willing to give others a second chance as they wished they could have that when they made a mistake or did wrong to someone else, then it would word.

Mary C Schaefer  |  13 Mar 2014  |  Reply

“…give others a second chance as they wished they could have…” – I think that is important to remember from a forgiveness standpoint. Thanks Kyle.

Randy Conley  |  13 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Hi Mary,

In addition to the many wonderful thoughts already shared, I would suggest that trust is rebuilt by the transgressor acknowledging, admitting, and expressing remorse for their behavior and the impact it had on the offended party, and most important, taking action to make amends and prove themselves trustworthy again over a period of time.

In order for trust to be rebuilt, the offended party has to be willing to put themselves at risk again by giving the transgressor the opportunity to prove him/herself trustworthy again. Not blind trust, but a reasonable approach to granting more and more trust as warranted.


Jonena Relth  |  13 Mar 2014  |  Reply


Thanks for you provocative post which has obviously touched many of us in the group.

I agree that it takes two to right a wrong. Unfortunately egos can often get in the way of full restoration because we are taught that showing what I call “loving and kind” behavior is a sign of weakness. I read an article recently; however, that our current work environment filled with stress and uncertainty is bringing out the goodness in leaders who see the need to show compassion to their employees.

Let’s all get behind leaders who show they are human beings just like the people who report to them! After all, life is just better when we treat people how we want to be treated. We can do this folks – one leader at a time.

Mary C Schaefer  |  14 Mar 2014  | 

“… our current work environment filled with stress and uncertainty is bringing out the goodness in leaders who see the need to show compassion to their employees.”

That is indeed good news, Jonena!

Mary C Schaefer  |  13 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Randy, you landed on a big one for me: “…acknowledging…impact it had on the offended party.”

“I’m sorry IF I…” with the wrong tone doesn’t get it for me.

And then, “…the offended party has to be willing to put themselves at risk *again*.” [my emphasis] That can be tough, but necessary.

Thanks for adding to the discussion.

Lin  |  13 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Trust can absolutely be rebuilt but is requires effort of both parties; the betrayed party must be willing to give adequate time for trust to be restored and supportive of the process, and, the offending party must be willing to do the work and continue to do the work UNTIL the trust is restored.
Time and positive action is the key; a new relevant history must be created that outweighs the old relevant history and this is a process that canNOT be put on a timeline so patience and sincerity on the part of both parties is required.

Mary C Schaefer  |  14 Mar 2014  |  Reply

“…a new relevant history must be created that outweighs the old relevant history..”

Beautifully said, Lin. Thank you for commenting.

Jolee Chartrand  |  13 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Hi Mary,

Trust is such a small word but it plays a huge role in our lives. So much of what I do every moment of every day is built on trust. I trust the other driver to obey the stop sign; I trust my boss to treat my ideas with respect, I trust, trust, trust. I wonder if trust is really our first response or if trust is built by repeated exposure to another person, system or situation. Isn’t trust really developed over time? That is also why it takes so long to reestablish trust once it’s been broken. As others have pointed out, a consistent behavior repeated over time is what creates trust and what is required to rebuild it.

Mary C Schaefer  |  14 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Wow Jolee. Thank you for reminding us how much we already trust people every day – people we don’t even know!

Your question – is trust our first response or through repeated exposure? I remember hearing once that we are more likely to believe someone we don’t know than someone we do know (in certain cases) because we don’t know that stranger long enough for them to have lied or betrayed us yet. Interesting phenomenon.

Nadine B Hack  |  14 Mar 2014  |  Reply

You absolutely can rebuild broken trust but it takes tremendous, consistent efforts to prove that you are, indeed, trustworthy! Everyone makes mistakes and it’s futile to think that once trust has been broken, it’s irreparable.

Mary C Schaefer  |  14 Mar 2014  |  Reply

“…it’s futile to think that once trust has been broken, it’s irreparable.” You know, Nadine, your comment makes me realize we wouldn’t have any friends or be close to ANYONE if this wasn’t true. Thanks for putting it so clearly.

Craig Debenham  |  15 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Currently reading The Speed of Trust by Stephen M.R. Covey. He has a whole section on this very topic.

Mary C Schaefer  |  16 Mar 2014  |  Reply

Thanks Craig for adding to the discussion. Excellent book reference.

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