When the trust is gone, is your business done?

Today, I facilitated a lengthy meeting between three company directors. The purpose of the meeting was, in part, to address the breakdown in trust between the two founding partners. The company has significantly changed in the past three years, and this has impacted relationships. 

The meeting was tense at times, and it considered two critical questions – can the business continue, and if so, how?  

My perspective 

My learning and experience suggest that the focus is about moving people out of betrayal into a more trusting relationship in such situations. 

Overall, I agree with and practice the perspective put forward by Michelle and Dennis Reina, the pioneers in this field. 

Reinas’ perspective 

In their book ‘Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace – building effective relationships in your organisation’, Reina and Reina suggest seven steps for achieving this.  

I went back to these principles today in my facilitation, and I explore them below. 

  • Observe and acknowledge what’s so - change inevitably impacts people – often to the detriment of their morale and productivity. Michael Fullan, one of my favourite change leadership authors, describes this as the implementation gap – that period of transition between the original ways of doing things and the internalisation of the new practices required. An influential leader should be alert to this and acknowledge what people are experiencing, demonstrating their care for those around them. My two colleagues had lost sight of this. 
  • Allow people to surface feelings – by acknowledging what they are experiencing; influential leaders provide people with permission and space to vent their feelings constructively. As a former Head of Service,  I used a process called ‘Air and Share’ that gave a designated time at the beginning of each staff meeting or event for any gripes, moans, groans. I would try to respond, but the agreement was that staff would focus positively on the remainder of the agenda once ‘Air and Share’ finished. That didn’t preclude challenge or critique but did prohibit self-fixated ramblings. However, suppressing your feelings also leads to greater tension in the longer term, as my two colleagues found to their cost. 
  • Give people support – influential leaders support the change process. People have transitional needs in any change process, and if these are not supported, they will feel betrayed. You can do this through 1-2-1s, group sessions, and walking the talk. My two colleagues fixated on their lack of support while ignoring the need to support one another. 
  • Reframe the experience by putting it into a larger context – a change that brings a feeling of betrayal has an emotional consequence and will leave individuals feeling vulnerable. Their actions or choices might then become unhelpful or seen as inappropriate. Often people need help to understand this and to see the change as part of a bigger context. Communicating this and continually engaging with them at this level is essential in ensuring that they are aware that they choose their actions. My two colleagues needed to understand that how we react to even an agreed change is an individual choice, and we bear that responsibility. 
  • People should take responsibility for their role in the process – change is often messy, lacking in pace, and sometimes seemingly pointless! It is therefore not helpful to deny errors of judgment or mistakes in practice. An essential basis for trust in the workplace is being open and honest about what has happened and attempting to remedy those mistakes wherever possible or apologise if it is not possible! I managed to help my two colleagues on this principle. 
  • Forgiveness – a persistent ‘blame’ culture in any organisation, is toxic to the individuals concerned and to the organisation as a whole. It undermines trust and morale and negatively impacts productivity, creativity and innovation, and people’s willingness to commit or ‘go the extra mile. I believe it is better to have people problem solving than blaming each other and enabling all to understand why a mistake [betrayal] occurred. In that way, we do not build on the historical blame burden but release people’s energy, focus, and inclination to achieve on a bigger scale. We successfully started that part of the journey today. 
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