How to repair a relationship when trust is broken (video transcript)

A lot of people have faced the horrible situation of having a teammate who stops trusting them. But it’s not the end of the line.

What if I were to tell you that there are ways to earn back your teammate’s trust? Here, I’ll show you the techniques that will help you earn back trust, and even repair trust once it’s been damaged.

What if you’ve blown it and done something that totally eroded your teammate’s trust in you? Or worse, what if you have no idea what you’ve done, but it’s pretty clear that you’re in the bad books?

It’s really hard when a teammate doesn’t trust you. Unfortunately, there’s no surefire thing you can do that will win back their trust, because trust is something inside of them. It’s how they think about you. It’s not something where you can just flick a switch and win their trust back.

The good news is though, that there are a series of steps you can take to actually become more trustworthy, earn back their trust one step at a time.

What type of trust is missing?

Your first step is to figure out what type of trust is missing or broken. Trust is a little bitty word, but it has a whole bunch of meanings.

For example, it’s one thing if a colleague said to you, “Look, I don’t trust you to build that. You’ve never built anything like that before.” That’s a totally different kind of trust than if your teammate said, “Hey, I don’t trust you not to throw me under the bus in front of the boss.” That’s totally different.

So it’s really important if you’ve damaged your trust with someone that you start to figure out, well, at what level was that trust broken?

Trust at the human connection level

Let’s start at the most basic level of trust, which is about connection, your human connection. The way trust works in the brain is it’s really about predictability. So does the person understand how you act? Can they predict, or anticipate, how you’re going to behave? That’s when you become trustworthy.

This goes back to our really primitive brains around who’s in our ingroup, and therefore safe and we can be relaxed around, and who’s in the outgroup that we need to be nervous of. That’s the most fundamental level of trust.

So if you think about somebody on your team with whom you used to have a strong connection, and somehow that connection has faded over time, well, you can imagine why they don’t trust you as much. Imagine you said something in a meeting last week and agreed with a plan that previously you never would’ve gone along with. Your teammate might be thinking, “What? I can’t believe you believe in that.” They start to question, “Do I even know you?”

Or imagine that you used to have coffee together or sit together in the cafeteria at lunch. You had a strong connection. You were in the same ingroup. Probably even laughed and talked about the other guys. Well, if suddenly you’re having lunch with somebody different, or even if your offices got moved apart, so you don’t have those casual collisions anymore, those things are going to affect the strength of your connection.

So if, when you think about this colleague that you’re worried about repairing trust with, if you think, mm, you know, I think we’ve actually started to grow apart, there’s your big opportunity.

Start by trying to reestablish that connection. You can do it in simple, little ways. Maybe sit down beside them in a meeting, create the chance for a little bit of informal talk or greater eye contact or body language as you’re in those meetings.

It’s also possible that you want to have some informal time together, grab a coffee. And it’s no problem at all to just say, “Hey, I feel like we’ve kinda lost touch a little bit lately. I’d love to catch up and hear what you’re working on.”

So in those situations, find ways to ask and inquire about them, to show you’re interested, to show you still see them as somebody who’s in your group. All of those things will repair trust that was damaged at that most fundamental level, the level of our human connection with our colleagues.

Trust at the confidence level

The next level of trust is about confidence, which is all about your competence.

So if what’s happened is you’ve kind of screwed something up, it’s possible that your teammate doesn’t trust you, not because they don’t feel connected to you, but because they’re worried that you don’t have the skills to be successful. If they’re dependent on you to be successful, that can really get in the way of trust.

So it’s important that you start to earn back their trust by demonstrating you are up to the task.

Now, it’s possible that you are totally up to the task. It may be a big stretch assignment and they’re nervous about whether you can do it. So in that case, be proactive. Start to show them and talk about, “here’s how I’m thinking about this. Here are the things that I’m studying and researching to make sure I’m ready. This is some of the interesting evidence that I’ve collected, or the data I’m using to inform my decisions”. Start to show them how you’re thinking about the problem. And that’s going to give them more confidence that, okay, maybe you’re on this after all.

Of course, one of the best ways to make them confident in your approach is to take their approach. So start by saying, “Hey, I’m working on this. How would you approach this? I know you’ve done similar things, I’d love to hear how you broached it”, or “What do you see that I haven’t paid attention to? Can you steer me or coach me on it?”

The things that affect our trust at the level of competence or confidence of the other person you can address by having better conversations with them about how you’re thinking about it, by engaging and getting their input and their feedback. All of those things are going to make them relax a little.

Of course, the only thing that’s ultimately going to restore your trust is when you deliver, but you can’t wait and just say, “Well, trust me, I’ll deliver.” It’s really important that if they aren’t trusting in your competence, that you show them the steps along the way.

So we’ve talked about how to repair trust if you’ve become disconnected from a colleague, and we’ve talked about what do you do if you kind of blew it somewhere along the way, or got into a job where they weren’t confident you could deliver.

Trust at the reliability level

Let’s move on to the third level of trust, and this is one I see being violated all the time lately. That’s trust that’s affected at the level of reliability.

So you may be the most competent person in the world, but if you have a really long to-do list or differing and competing priorities with your teammate, it’s possible that you’ve actually failed to deliver.

Maybe you were late delivering something, or maybe you didn’t put as much effort into it as they were expecting. All of those things cause your teammates to question whether you’re really going to come through for them when they need you. That broken reliability, that’s a huge risk in a relationship on a team.

Just like with confidence, the only thing that’s going to really prove it is when you deliver. But again, you can’t wait to the end before you show them that you are worth trusting.

The way to do it if it’s about reliability is to first invest way more time than you usually would making sure you’re aligned on what’s expected of you. Maybe that was actually the reason you didn’t deliver last time, is you weren’t clear on what they wanted, or they weren’t thinking about it the same way as you were. So upfront, make sure you’re really clear on, “Okay, so what we’re saying is you need this, and this, and this from me, and with this one, what we’re saying is it’ll include A, B and C”. You really go a little bit more into it than you normally would. You also want to really double check on, “Okay, and you need this much by Tuesday?”. And make sure that you’re setting it up that way.

The second thing is, again, don’t just say, “Okay, I got it,” and then come back three weeks later, because all through those three weeks, the person’s going to be thinking, “I really hope they deliver. I really hope they deliver.”

Instead, right before they come to you to go, “How are you doing?”, you want to actually go to them first. “Just thought you might want toi know I’ve done steps one and two.” Or, “I know we’re trying to get to 25,000. I’ve got 7,000 in already, and I’ve got my eye on the next 10.”

Whatever it is, create milestones along the way, so that right before your teammate’s starting to worry or have that pit in their stomach again about whether you’re going to deliver, you’re actually giving them some new information. That’s especially important if you’re at risk of not delivering, because if you have two strikes against you, it’s really going to be tough to recover.

If you decide, Oof, I know we’re supposed to be getting to 25,000. I can only see seven. Get in there as early as possible and say, “I know we still have two weeks, and I’m doing everything I can. I don’t see it right now. So can we talk about what other approaches we might be able to take?”

When you’re trying to reestablish trust that’s been broken because of a lack of reliability, it’s important to clarify expectations up front. Secondly, it’s really important to make sure you have milestones and you are providing proactive updates. And third, if there’s anything that has the plan going off the rails, you want to be talking about that the minute you’re getting nervous, because it’s super important that they not learn something’s going poorly after the fact.

So if that’s the issue, if reliability’s been the source of your broken trust with somebody, just take the bull by the horns the next time and show them that they can count on you.

Trust at the values level

Okay, now, we’re through the relatively easy stuff. And I say relatively, because none of this is especially easy.

But now, we’re on to the really advanced stuff, the big kahuna… What if your trust is broken because you did something that caused your teammate to question your values or your ethics?

When you get into trust that’s destroyed because of integrity issues, you are talking about a long climb back. Maybe your teammate walked in and heard you gossiping about them. Or what if they saw you doing something that was really questionable against the rules, or maybe even unethical? If you’ve done something that has put you in their category of, ‘this is a low-integrity person’, you need to work really hard to restore that trust.

First of all, you are going to have to really open up and take ownership for what you did. No sharing the blame, no giving justifications or excuses for why it happened. Just stand there and say, “Look, this is what I did. And that was wrong.”

If it’s a really bad case, and particularly if you made that person look bad in front of others, that apology is probably going to need to be public for it to carry enough weight, in front of your whole team saying, “I need to say that I was saying some stuff about Scott that was not okay. And I apologize to you, Scott, in front of everybody. That was wrong.”

Then you’re going to have to come up with some kind of a conversation that allows you to start to reestablish the connection. In the end, it’s really going to take quite a while. And you’re not only going to have to say the right things, but integrity is really going to be measured in what you do. Do you walk the talk?

Integrity issues are the most challenging to recover from. The only hope is to be especially open, and vulnerable, and candid. And to be frank, that vulnerability and willingness to be transparent about what you did wrong is a great technique for any of the levels.

If you got disconnected and you say, “I’m sorry, I got all excited about the new guy that joined because he codes in the same language as me, and I know I was kind of all excited so I stopped having lunch with you, and that was wrong.” It doesn’t matter what level it is, if trust has been broken at any level, it’s really going to benefit from you owning up to what you did and saying, “I want to make this better.”

Building healthy trust habits

Okay, so the question becomes “where is there a relationship that matters to your team where trust isn’t what it could be, or maybe where you need to repair it?”

What are you going to do this week that repairs broken trust on your team?

More on this

Another Thing You Can Do to Repair Trust That is Damaged

How Can I Be More Trustworthy?

The Surprising Source of Most Trust Issues