May 15th, 2017

Most of us who have worked in an organization of any kind have been in the situation of having to work with someone we don’t trust. At best this situation can create a lot of stress. At worst it can decrease productivity, escalate costs, increase employee sick days and turnover, an more.

A client named Robert recently told me that he had lost trust in another senior director in his group. According to my client, this individual (I’ll call him Mike) had repeatedly said one thing then did something different. In some of these instances my client said what Mike had done had caused major problems. At this point Robert didn’t trust anything Mike said. But, as my client put it, “I still have to work with this guy. Since I can’t fire him, and I don’t want to find a new job, I’ve gotten really good at avoiding him.”

Talking with someone you about trust is rarely easy. People have told me in all seriousness they would rather quit and try to find a new job than have to confront a distrusted co-worker.

But after years of working with people around issues of trust and distrust my experience is that talking about it usually does make a positive difference if you go about it the right way. Before saying anything to the other person, start by having a conversation with yourself.

Here are six things to do before you start talking to the other person.

  1. Decide if you are willing to talk to the person about it by asking yourself the following questions:
    What might I lose by having the conversation?
    What will I lose by continuing to distrust this person?
    How will it benefit me, my team and my company to work this out so I can trust this person?

    Robert’s answers to these questions were: 1) The worst thing that could happen is Mike could get angry and we’d be in an even worse situation. 2) It is really starting to affect my performance. When I successfully avoid him I don’t get stuff I need to do my job. Plus I think it’s affecting the entire team in a bad way. 3) If I could trust him I’d be able to do my job better than I am now, the team would be more unified, and frankly, I’d feel better about coming to work. Probably other stuff, too.

  2. Identify what kind of trust the person has breached or betrayed.
    Typically we think about trust as just one thing. But when it comes to dealing with distrust it can be very useful to think about different domains of trust. I use four: care which means you have the other person’s interests in mind as well as your own when you make decisions and take action; sincerity which means you are honest and your actions align with your words; reliability which means you keep the specific promises you make; competence which means you have the capacity, skills, knowledge, and resources to act effectively in a given situation.
    (Click here for more on domains of trust.)

    At first Robert answered the question by saying the individual betrayed his trust in all four domains. But after thinking about it more carefully he determined that it was primarily the domains of sincerity and care that were the issue for him. He acknowledged Mike usually kept specific commitments and that he was competent at his job. It was when Mike said one thing and then did something that didn’t align with what he’d said that bothered Robert. He offered a couple of examples of this. Robert also believed that Mike cared more about his own career and status in the company than about the team’s and company’s mission.

  3. Define the ‘standard’ you are using. The point of this step is to recognize that the other person may hold different standards than you regarding the situation. Defining a standard for making an assessment of trustworthiness applies most directly in the domains of reliability and competence. If this is so, then you can focus your conversation to arrive at a shared understanding.

    When we talked about it Robert couldn’t identify any particular standard he was using to assess Mike’s sincerity. However, he did agree to keep the idea in mind that he may be holding Mike to a standard he was not aware of.

  4. Identify the specific actions or behaviors that have led to your assessment of distrust. This is a critical step. Telling the person specifically what they do and/or say (or don’t do/say) that you interpret as untrustworthy can help them understand how to rebuild trust with you. Once you identify the behaviors or actions it is equally important to find and practice using neutral language to describe the behavior. “You said you would support my proposal in the meeting but you were obviously lying because all you did was trash my plan, which I think shows a complete lack of integrity on your part.” A statement like that may describe the behavior, but it would also kill any possibility of further conversation. A more useful way of saying it would be “When we spoke last week you said, ‘I will support your proposal.’ But today in the meeting you only talked about the potential problems you thought it could cause. That did not sound like support to me.”

    Robert related two specific instances in which Mike had said one thing to Robert that he later contradicted either when talking with someone else or by doing something that didn’t align with what he’d said. Like the example above, we worked on how he could describe these situations to Mike using neutral language.

  5. Determine what you need from them in order for them to regain your trust. What can they do that will address your concerns and reassure you that you can begin or resume trusting them? Think it through from the other person’s perspective. Is this something they have the capacity to do? Can they do it in the context of their work environment? How can you help them regain your trust?

    At first Robert said what he would need from Mike in order to trust him was for Mike to stop saying one thing and doing another. But as he talked it through Robert realized everyone, himself included, sometimes changed their minds about things (he realized that would be holding Mike to an impossibly high standard). A more realistic request would be that if at all possible Mike would let him know when he’s changed his mind before Robert hears it from someone else or sees that he did something different.

    At this point you are either ready to have a conversation with the other person, or you have decided you are not going to try to repair the relationship. If you do want to try talking about it, there is one final step.

  6. Ask the other person if he/she would be willing to have a conversation with you about something that concerns you. Agree on a time and place that are mutually convenient and private. Avoid blindsiding them by bringing this up as part of a conversation about something else. You want the other person to be calm, thoughtful, and open to listening to your concern, and not defensive.

In a future post I’ll talk about how to start a conversation of this kind in a way that sets you up to succeed.