Trust recovery in the team

Once trust is broken in a team, it is hard to recover. Yet the requirement to collaborate remains as strongly as ever. Mistrust between two individuals affects all the team, with other members either taking sides or suffering the discomfort of trying hard to stay neutral. Mediation or conflict resolution can hammer out a compromise that enables at least a baseline of co-working, but do little to remove suspicion and resentment. Typically, team members, who distrust each other, cope by avoiding contact with each other outside of prescribed essential interactions.

Having a trust recovery process is one way to rebuild collaborative working. It gives both the protagonists and other team members a framework, upon which to manage the complex and cautious co-learning that enables everyone to gradually extend the scope of the trust they feel. It recognises that both trust and distrust are emotional reactions linked to primeval survival instincts.

The following is a ten-step trust recovery process.

  1. Recognise that trust has been broken. Often, everyone knows it, but no-one says it. The issue can’t be addressed until it is in the open.
  2. Recognise the impact that lack of trust is having on both the protagonists and stakeholders – for example, how it is affecting the team’s workflow.
  3. Acknowledge that both sides feel emotionally damaged. It’s rarely a one-way phenomenon. It’s important to name, share and own the emotions. Once we acknowledge what we feel, we can reflect upon how we might change those emotions – with or without a change in the relationship.
  4. Invite each party to share their narrative of events in the context that no two people experience the same event the same way. For each event or sub-event (at the micro-level, a simple sigh of exasperation can be an event within a series of events), what assumptions did each party make about the intent of the other?
  5. What is the shared value that has been undermined? Breach of trust frequently revolves around one or both parties’ perception that the other has breached a core value they had believed was held mutually. Naming that value provides an opportunity for both sides to reaffirm commitment to it. A key principle here is that the same value may lead to different behaviours, depending on context.
  6. What was the intent of each party? The deeper the level of distrust, the more people are likely to attribute malevolent intent to the other person. Bringing intent into the conversation is a step towards establishing mutual goodwill.
  7. What is each party prepared to take responsibility for in part or whole? Responsibility here has three dimensions:
    1. How their assumptions and behaviours may unintentionally have contributed to the issue
    2. What they are willing to accept in terms of responsibility for repairing the damage now
    3. What they are willing to commit to in terms of rebuilding trust in the future
  8. What responsibilities remain that stakeholders need the parties to take responsibility for? Both parties are invited to consider how they can reduce the impact of their distrust on team colleagues and other stakeholders.
  9. What generosity can each party offer the other? Everyone likes to be thought of as generous!
  10. How will we review progress in trust recovery? Expecting everyone to become best friends immediately is unrealistic. It’s important to plan to meet at intervals to acknowledge what each has contributed to the recovery process, to review anything that happens to either support or hinder trust recovery.

Some relationships never recover from a serious breach of trust. Others are greatly strengthened by the trust recovery process. One of the reasons why this is so, is that people learn, evolve and grow. A young person may breach trust through naivety and lack of awareness of the impact of their actions, for example. If they learn from the breakdown of that relationship, they become a wiser person, better able to trust and be trusted.

© David Clutterbuck, 2023

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