Can Trust Be Repaired?

| | Personal Leadership

There are many who believe that once trust has been breached or broken it can never be repaired, at least not to the level that returns the relationship to it’s former state.  I absolutely agree with that.  Except I believe that while the relationship will never be the same, that does not have to mean it will be worse.

In fact, I believe that in the process of restoring trust you can actually build a relationship that is stronger than it was before. Repairing trust is hard work, but breakdowns provide an incredible opportunity for us to reassess our relationships and make changes in our we interact and work together to make us far more effective going forward.

It is easy to trust someone who has never let us down.  But if we are taking any level of risk at all there will be breakdowns, some of which will be caused by us.  And rarely do we act fully alone – some breakdowns will happen because we have pushed the boundaries of what is possible given the dynamic of our existing relationships.  Unless we use the inevitable breakdowns in an uncertain, rapidly changing world to learn how to trust each other more, we won’t grow to meet the challenges we face, let alone be prepared to take the risks required to do the extraordinary together.

The opportunity of leveraging breakdowns in trust to fuel breakthroughs in relationship is not just a nice possibility.  It is an essential skill for thriving in a world that increasingly depends on or ability to cooperate and collaborate to be successful.

Below are a few suggestions for how to begin the process of re-building trust.  Jane also provides some great suggestions specifically focused on rebuilding credibility in her post.

Admit You Screwed Up, And Leave Out the Good Reasons

Giving good reasons for why we screwed up is tempting and has even become somewhat of a practice in our culture.  But explaining our reasons just serves to deflect our responsibility in the matter.  It doesn’t help build trust and all too often reasons are used in an attempt to let ourselves off the hook from taking personal responsibility and/or somehow make us feel better.  This leads me to the next point.

Don’t Just Apologize, Demonstrate Personal Responsibility

In an excellent  post titled Credibility: Don’t  Leave Home without It Jane Perdue leads off with this…

Said by a perplexed employee to a co-worker: “When will my boss get off my case? Sure, I made a huge mistake last month that nearly caused the client to drop us, and I was a little late to tell my boss about it. I’ve apologized and am changing my ways, but my boss keeps questioning everything I do. He’s treating me like I’m a new employee.”

Expecting an apology to be enough to regain trust is a big mistake.  It is a great place to start,  but admitting we screwed up, expressing remorse and saying we are sorry is not the same as taking personal responsibility for the impact of our actions.  To do that we need to seek to fully understand the impact and contribute to repairing the damage done.  We need to come to the table with our head held high as a partner in dealing effectively with the aftermath rather than head hung low with guilt in the hope that eventually all will be forgiven.  Don’t let your mistakes or failure to keep your commitments become someone else’s problem.

Own Your Gap

Beware of the cover up. When we screw up, especially in a corporate setting that pulls for us to look good, it can be tempting to write off what happened as an aberration in our behavior or to try to prove ourselves by demonstrating  just how much we know or how “good” we are overall.  Most people won’t lost faith in you for a mistake or two even if they are big ones.  But they will be unlikely to trust you for long if you don’t do some soul searching and identify the gap(s) in your capabilities and mindset that contributed to the breakdown.  Share what you learn and go to work on what you need to learn until it actually shows up in new behavior.

What do you think?  Do you think trust can be repaired?  If so, what are your suggestions for how to go about it?


Enter A Comment

Rick Ross   |   03 August 2010   |   Reply

Yes, I think trust can be repaired. Your points on how to go about doing so are as good as any I’ve seen.

Your point about coming to the table with your head held high is especially important. I’ve never seen it mentioned elsewhere as a trust rebuilding step, yet just witnessed someone completely miss it, with dire consequences, as recently as yesterday.

The person had committed a serious oversight. In a meeting to review the mistake, she sat slumped in her chair with a look of “can we just get this over with”.

With a different attitude, one that demonstrated her confidence in learning and moving on, the trust restoration might have already begun. Instead, I’m concerned that the person may lose their job.

Of course, there are people and situations where restoring trust isn’t possible. Some people just have trouble trusting again. If the breach was either intentional, or worse yet criminal, restoration is unlikely.

Susan Mazza   |   04 August 2010   |   Reply

Thanks Rick for sharing your first hand experience with the cost of NOT coming to the table with your “head held high”. That “let’s get this over with” posture is about wanting to escape those awful feelings as fast as possible. Yet focusing on what we can do now actually accomplishes the same goal by returning us to an experience of our own power.

Rick Ross   |   04 August 2010   |  


Dr Sarah A. Morris   |   03 August 2010   |   Reply

Great topic because as you point out, trust is the foundation for all our interactions. I have seen many people seriously damaged by breaches of trust, such that they have then gone on to generalise out, so that the one situation then pollutes any similar relatinships in the future. Big, defensive walls are put up in an attempt to protect the person from the possibility of future hurt. Of course, this can become very limiting and ultimately part of their ‘style’. So, I agree wholeheartedly with your comments about taking complete responsibility for any breakdown of trust that has been casued by us. I also think that the ‘victim’ of the breakdown needs to be prepared to stand up, protect their own boundaries in the moment and say ‘ this has happened and it’s not acceptable’. When we learn to protect our own boundaries, it builds our own sense of self trust and self worth, preventing the above scenario from happening and probably increasing our ability to build even stronger relationships.

Susan Mazza   |   04 August 2010   |   Reply

Thanks for the great dimensions of trust you added here Sarah. Our past experience can get in the way of our current relationships limiting what is possible for our future if we are not mindful and even courageous enough to risk being hurt again. And it is up to us to set appropriate boundaries and speak up for ourselves when we have been harmed. These are very powerful ways for each of us to be personally responsible for building trusting relationships in our lives.

Meredith Bell   |   04 August 2010   |   Reply

Susan, outstanding post on a character trait that’s critical to effective living. And the comments from the others really enriched the insights I’m taking away from your post. Without trust, we’re always on edge waiting for someone to make a mistake or violate the relationship in some way.

I agree that an apology isn’t enough and we do need to take responsibility. I have found that when I’m the one who’s committed the offensive act, if I make a specific commitment about what I’ll do differently in the future and ask the other person to support me in my efforts to follow through, it helps to rebuild the trust. That person realizes I’m serious about doing what’s necessary to strengthen the relationship going forward.

Susan Mazza   |   04 August 2010   |   Reply

Thanks for stopping by Meredith . You add some excellent points. Your point about making a specific commitment about what you will do differently is an important aspect of Owning Your Gap that I did not make explicit.

And I agree with you: the comments here are incredibly rich! Danny Brown recently talked about Mining for the Gold in Blog Comments – his points are demonstrated here in spades!

(here is the link to Danny’s post for anyone interested)

Mike Henry Sr.   |   04 August 2010   |   Reply

Any trust violation can be overcome, but some people won’t let it. Unfortunately the offended party has just as big a role to play, maybe larger. If the offended party chooses not to forgive they begin to carry a burden that will eventually wear them down. In order to restore the win-win nature of a trust relationship, each party must let the other party “win.” So the offender must take responsibility, make amends and learn from the situation. The offended parties must recognize the effort and “let” the offender back into the fold. Without both steps, restoration won’t occur.

But I will add one other thing. We never truly learn to trust someone until we get into a position where they can fail us. If we stop trusting people, it won’t matter what they do. We will suffer.


Susan Mazza   |   04 August 2010   |   Reply

So true Mike – some people are not interested in allowing trust to be repaired. For me you captured the essence of the cost of this in these words:

“We never truly learn to trust someone until we get into a position where they can fail us. If we stop trusting people, it won’t matter what they do. We will suffer.”

Beautifully said Mike – thank you!

Rick Ross   |   04 August 2010   |   Reply

Susan said “Beautifully said Mike – thank you!” I second that!

Thomas Waterhouse   |   04 August 2010   |   Reply

I think of trust (the giving kind) as a character trait that we are wise to develop throughout our lives. It never needs repair because it’s proactive, so it cannot be taken off guard or receive a wound. I call it the “trusting character”. A “trusting character” (contrasted with a trustworthy character) is realistic and knows the fallibility of people. A “trusting character” assesses, almost organically, whether others are naturally orienting towards deeper character, and it acts accordingly with “just right” boundaries. A “trusting character” is strong with grace, and always prepared to cover offenses with a beckoning love. A “trusting character” makes a decision to grow, and always takes the long view with itself, and with others. A “trusting character” seizes the mission of raising up mature people, while “emotional trust” makes demands for predictability in order to feel secure. You have raised a crucial issue that I could go on about forever, but I’ll spare your readers the broader narrative. 🙂 When all is said-and-done, little can be done to me that I have not done to others in some form or fashion. There is nothing that can be done to me that will not leave me better for the wear. That’s what a “trusting character” believes; therefore, a “trusting character” always prevails by calling others to higher ground. Susan, I love that you have the courage to vulnerably bring up challenging issues! I really do believe in you, and I trust you too! 🙂

Susan Mazza   |   04 August 2010   |   Reply

Thank you Thomas for adding the powerful distinction of the “trusting character” to this conversation.

When it comes to trust we have a choice to make regarding the context of our approach – you articulated that choice beautifully in this statement:

A “trusting character” seizes the mission of raising up mature people, while “emotional trust” makes demands for predictability in order to feel secure.

Anne Perschel   |   04 August 2010   |   Reply

Important topic Susan and nicely done. The conversation that can occur once trust is breached can be deepen the relationship if both parties really learn WHAT is important to the other. Talking about WHY it’s important can reveal a great deal about both parties. As people get to know each other in a deeper and more meaningful way judgments often fade and working together become easier and more fulfilling.

Susan Mazza   |   04 August 2010   |   Reply

Great point Anne – to successfully repair trust AND deepen the relationship in the process requires that “both parties really learn WHAT is important to the other”.

If we focus all of our energy on what happened we miss the opportunity of what the breakdown can teach us about our relationship.

Sonia Di Maulo   |   04 August 2010   |   Reply

“The opportunity of leveraging breakdowns in trust to fuel breakthroughs in relationships is not just a nice possibility. It is an essential skill for thriving in a world that increasingly depends on our ability to cooperate and collaborate to be successful.”

Here are my 3 Key lessons learned as a result of “breakdowns”:

1. As Anne pointed out, we need to “learn WHAT is important to the other”. I have learned to communicate my values and beliefs in the early stages of my personal and professional relationships. Oftentimes people are taken aback that I would communicate so authentically at the start! I find that this helps me in the long run!
2. I have learned to focus on the future and let bygones be bygones. We can only control our own thoughts and actions, do the best that we can in accepting ownership, and then carry on.
3. Also learned that accepting blame (even when intention was to do right) allows others to regain trust.

A Breakthrough Story (that leveraged a breakdown in trust)

Recently I was working a on a very high-profile project with a very high-profile client that had come to trust me and highly regard my work. This project allowed me to showcase a different skill-set and I was hoping not to disappoint! Well, the outcome was not exactly what we both expected! I apologized, took responsibility, fixed it and cooperated with full focus on making it better (like what Meredith explained).

Issues of trust test a relationship and allow us to shine in our next steps. In the end, the client appreciated the apology and willingness to work through the now “shared” breakdown and am now working with them again… regaining trust on an even higher level. A true breakthrough story!

Great post on a topic that truly fascinates me!

Susan Mazza   |   17 August 2010   |   Reply

What a fabulous story Sonia demonstrating the key point here – you can repair trust and in the process create an even stronger bond of trust for the future.

Your 3 key lessons are also excellent.

Thanks so much for sharing your experience and wisdom here.

Dorothy Dalton   |   06 August 2010   |   Reply

Susan – trust – what a timely and topical issue . I have recently been defrauded by a client – will I trust him again? No!

I think in many situations each case has to be treated individually with regard to the depth and degree of the breach and the nature of the issue. In most cases I would say with the right attidtude and communication, it is possible, whether in the workplace or personal relationships, but all parties are changed by the process and lessons are learned.

As one of the commentators mentioned , it’s about the follow up actions of all parties, rather than the words that are said, that carry the most weight.

Susan Mazza   |   17 August 2010   |   Reply

Excellent points Dorothy. There is no doubt we have choices to make when trust is breached. In your post about the situation you are referring to you provide a great example of a situation where there is neither interest or opportunity to repair trust yet there is always an opportunity to learn and grow.

Here’s the link… http://bit.ly/cRg45F

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach   |   06 August 2010   |   Reply

Oh Susan, you hit a home run with this post. Straightforward ownership w/o many reasons why combined with action to correct with personal responsibility is definitely the way to rebuild trust.

I add only this short post to help avoid the deadly word(s) that sabotage your best intentions:

Love your post… will share with others.

Susan Mazza   |   17 August 2010   |   Reply

Thanks so much Kate for stopping by and sharing your post – you provide some essential advice regarding one of the key elements of restoring trust: delivering an authentic and effective apology.

Autism Symptoms   |   20 August 2010   |   Reply

This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free. I enjoy seeing websites that understand the value of providing a prime resource for free. I truly loved reading your post. Thanks!

Jann Freed   |   24 August 2010   |   Reply

I like your suggestions. I always say that the best way for people to trust you is for you to trust them. Trust is based on reciprocity so learning to trust others is the start. If we can’t trust them, then maybe it is time to find other people whom we can trust. And this is harder to do. But trust is reflected in what we say and do.

What is the best way to get people to comment on my blog? You are a good role model and I try to model by closing many posts with questions. Is the best way to just start commenting on other sites? I have not been the best at this, but even when I do I don’t get much response. Just need to advice and encouragement. Thanks Susan.

Susan Mazza   |   05 September 2010   |   Reply

Excellent point Jann about trust beginning with our willingness to trust. Often the things we have a hardest time trusting in others is the very thing we have a hard time trusting ourselves with.

Regarding getting people to engage on your blog, I continue to work on it and have much to learn. I’ll suggest to you though that success is less about the post and more about reaching out than drawing people in. You need great content of course and you are off to a great start in that regard.

I spend more time reading, sharing and commenting on other people’s blogs and engaging in social media conversation than I do writing for my own blog. There are also lots of other ways to find people who are interested in the same conversations you are. In the end it is all about creating relationships.

Jane Perdue   |   31 August 2010   |   Reply

I’m finding that petrified egg on the face is hard to remove! My apologies for not acknowledging earlier your gracious includion of my post on your great write-up. A client situation prompted my post, so your points and those added here have enriched the client discussion so thanks to you and all. Having someone do something that shatters trust is a disturbing emotional event. Yet, we must take the high road and work to repair it. Refusing to do so isolates us and permits walls to be built that hamper future interaction.

Susan Mazza   |   05 September 2010   |   Reply

Thank you Jane, but consider the virtual egg “erased”. I had no expectation. It’s just a conversation and you started a rich one for me so I truly appreciate that! Besides I always know where to find you and can count on you to show up and offer your wisdom and support at seemingly the “perfect” times.

AB   |   30 May 2012   |   Reply

Very good article, I am reading this after a long time, may be because I myself have broken someone’s trust. Though this is not in corporate world, it’s in my personal relationship. I have agreed I have screwed up and have apologized multiple times and asking one opportunity to rectify my mistake and recoup the relationship. The other person is very adamant and does not want to give me an opportunity. This guilt of breaking the trust is killing me. I really want to resolve this issue , but not sure how to do so. Appreciate if you can provide some insight here.


Susan Mazza   |   31 May 2012   |   Reply

Two things come to mind for you to consider. One is have you forgiven yourself? It is not up to you whether you are forgiven, but forgiving yourself is. Besides, guilt is a sign you have not forgiven yourself and, if not, how can you expect to be forgiven by someone else?

The second is an apology delivered with any attachment to a particular response, e.g., letting you “fix what you broke”, forgiving you and letting you back in their life, etc. isn’t really an apology. It is an attempt at negotiating which requires both of you to be willing participants.

Besides, their forgiveness won’t help address your feelings of guilt anyway. Consider doing the inner work that will help you come face to face with the source of the transgression so you can grow from it.

You can’t make someone do anything including accept your apology, but you can always choose to do the work to learn and grow from your mistakes.

Trying to do the former is likely to fuel helplessness. The latter is the path to reclaim your personal power. Do that work first and you are more likely to see how you might repair trust and choose whether or not you want to try again, this time with no expectations.