In our last blog, we discussed how leaders can wreck trust on their teams. Now, no leader sets out purposefully to damage trust. But it can happen, nonetheless. If you find yourself in the unenviable position of having been responsible for dismantling team trust, you have an important job ahead of you: rebuilding trust on your team. While not easy, it is possible. So take a deep breath, roll up your sleeves, and take a look at the following blueprint.
1. Be willing to change.
Humility is the foundation for rebuilding trust. If you damaged trust and want it back, you can’t afford excuses, justifications, or passing the buck. You need to be willing to make changes in your own behavior.
2. Engage in self-examination (perhaps with a little help).
You can’t make changes to your behavior until you know what behaviors need to be changed. So block out space on your calendar, sit down, and think through what you have done – or not done – that has contributed to the breakdown of trust on your team. Write out specific behaviors that need to be addressed, such as making arbitrary decisions or not giving regular feedback. You may want to ask a trusted colleague or friend for their perspective since you might be too hard or too easy on yourself.
3. Be honest and candid with your team members.
Here is where the rubber meets the road. Whether in a team meeting or in one-on-one sessions, you need to admit to your team members that you have eroded trust by acting in certain ways. This will probably involve eating a large slice of humble pie. It’s tough to swallow, but remember: you are leading by example with your vulnerability and your willingness to change for the good of the team and the good of the company. This is leadership courage at its finest.
4. Apologize for your hurtful behaviors.
Bear in mind that when trust is broken, people get hurt. An apology is therefore likely in order. Again, be specific. This isn’t about saying, “Sorry I haven’t been the best manager lately.” It’s about saying, “I apologize for not including you in the decision-making process for the ABC project. You had a right to be involved and I ignored that and made a decision without your input.”
5. Request feedback from your team.
To this point, you’ve been doing the talking. Now, it is time to listen. Ask your team members for their feedback on what you have said. Emphasize that you want them to speak freely and that there will be no negative repercussions for anything they say. Open the door for people to point out negative behaviors you might have overlooked in your self-examination. Be prepared that some people might not trust you enough to speak up. Others might be very encouraging. Some might bring out further concerns or complaints. And, yes, there could be those who lash out in anger because they finally have the opportunity to get the hurt off their chest. Regardless of the response, just listen.
6. Check for understanding.
Once your team members have spoken, paraphrase and reflect what they said back to them to check for your own understanding. Trust depends heavily on understanding one another, and this is a great place to put active listening skills into practice.
7. Decide what you will do differently.
You now have the input you need to make a plan of action. Block out time on your calendar again and ask yourself, “If someone broke trust in these ways with me, what would I like them to do differently going forward?” Then, challenge yourself to take those same action steps. Be clear and specific – and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Target no more than three areas initially to work on. For instance, you might commit to holding monthly feedback sessions with your team members or to giving weekly project updates to keep people “in the know.”
8. Ask for input from your team.
It will be tempting to keep your plan of action to yourself. Don’t do it. Trust is closely entwined with transparency, so be upfront and tell your team members what you intend to do differently. Ask if this will move the team in a healthier direction or if it will repair a working relationship. They might have suggestions; since these are the people your behaviors hurt, strongly consider incorporating their input into your plan. They will know best what will contribute to restoring trust.
9. Monitor your progress and be accountable.
Work your plan and monitor your progress in putting the corrective actions into practice. You need to persevere – you are breaking old habits and making new ones, and we all know that is a tough proposition. Be accountable to your team members and ask for their feedback at regular intervals to check whether you are hitting the mark or not. Assess what is working and make changes to what is not.
10. Be patient – it takes time to rebuild trust.
Finally, be patient. Rebuilding trust is a slow business. People will need time and the steady repetition of positive behaviors before they will believe that they are seeing real change. Only then will their own response shift back to one of trust. The good news is that most people are willing to make that shift. They value trust and the honesty, openness, vulnerability, and transparency that characterize a culture of trust.
Trust is the foundation of high-performing teams. Trust is worth working at. If it has been damaged, it is worth restoring. So if you are looking at some rubble on your team, take this blueprint and get down to the business of building up trust.