Rebuilding Team Trust

Three questions to help you put shattered pieces back together

What are the common reasons why trust breaks down within organizations and teams? Lack of competence: the freeloader who doesn't do anything. Unreliability: the colleague who never gets things done. Negative intent: the backstabber who shares private information. Unfairness: the boss who plays favourites. Dishonesty: the liar who can’t seem to tell the truth.

Trust is a complex issue but there are three questions that can help determine whether and how a breach in trust can be repaired.

1. Is this an issue where trust can be repaired?

Consider the issue at the centre of the breach of trust. For example, it's tough to train competence within the time frame of a typical project or to trust in someone to do their part of a project if you don't think they have the skill level. Similarly, what about an unethical individual? More often than not, no amount of team building or facilitation will fix these types of situations.

2. Who is involved?

What if the team leader is, for example, a back stabber; are you going to confront that issue? You would need to understand that confronting someone in a position of power or authority will have implications that could be different than confronting a colleague at the same level.

3. Is there a need for an external coach for facilitator?

For those who find it difficult to address issues involving breaches of trust, an external coach or facilitator could be immensely useful. They help focus on resolving the conflict and keeping the issue calm. People can feel a tremendous relief when an emotional issue is put on the table, confronted effectively, and resolved.

A Way Forward

Whether you’re a team leader, manager, coach, or HR facilitator, the way forward is to meet with each of the team members individually. Identify the behaviours responsible for broken trust. Clarify what's required to gain their commitment to move forward. Often it’s an apology for the mistakes and an end to the behaviours that led to the problem. What are the new productive behaviours that must happen in the future?

Lay all of that out. Next, meet with both team members to discuss the situation and align around the expectations moving forward. When you meet, the apology or apologies would take place. You would establish clear behavioural expectations in writing. Then identify a follow-up date to assess progress. This alone helps people to stay on track.

Remember, though, not all breaches may be reparable. Identify whether or not there is an opportunity to move forward before arranging to meet with the parties.

Shawna O’Grady is an associate professor of management at Smith School of Business.

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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