The fundamental building block of any relationship — business or personal — is trust. What do you do if someone has broken your trust or you have broken theirs? You can make a significant difference with some simple steps.
If someone has broken your trust, there is usually a fear that the trust will be broken again. Unfortunately, that is often the case unless these four key steps are taken.
1. Make sure they feel safe to tell you the truth.
Consider how you might have conditioned someone to break your trust. Did you punish someone for telling the truth in the past by becoming defensive or upset? Did you penalize them in some way? Many people would prefer to lie than to deal with that kind of reaction again. If you have conditioned someone to not tell you the truth, it is possible to recondition them. The best initial step is to apologize for your behavior and for creating an environment where they don’t feel safe to tell you the truth. Apologies go a long way to re-building trust. Then ask, “What can I do in the future to make you feel safe, so I can be assured that you will tell me the truth?” Based on their response, decide on an agreeable plan with specific actions you will perform to establish an environment in which they will feel safe to tell you the truth.
2. Ask the person, “What is going to be different from this point forward so that I know I will be able to trust you?”
If they answer the question by using vague language about unspecific actions, chances are good the trust is going to be broken and the undesired behavior will occur again. Lines such as, “Well, I have learned my lesson” or “I am going to try harder” or “I am going to be more disciplined” or “I won’t do that again” mean it is probably going to happen again. People often have good intentions, but after time has passed and emotions have died down, we tend to revert to our old ways. The past predicts the future, unless we take action to do something specifically different. If you are a manager, it is perfectly appropriate and actually responsible
to ask specifically what is going to be different — how they will achieve their goals. If they can’t come up with any specifics, you can bank on nothing changing.
3. Create a consequence ahead of time for what will happen if trust is broken again and things don’t change.
Let’s consider the previous example. When someone is not achieving their goals, you can say, “In the spirit of honesty, I just want you to know that I am going to start documenting any future failures. I have to hold you accountable, just like I do everyone else, to achieving the established goals.” This may sound harsh, but by taking this step, the person knows you mean business. If things don’t change, it sets in motion (without any surprises) what you are going to do next. Make sure you are ready to implement the consequence. Otherwise, you will be conditioning that person that you don’t mean what you say and that the old behavior is okay.
On the personal front, a friend of mine kept making promises that he was going to make a decision about moving in with his girlfriend. After a while, people around him lost trust that he would ever follow through and make a decision. After making another proclamation, someone suggested that if he did not follow through with his latest deadline, he should dress up like a woman and walk around a department store. When he balked, some people challenged him. They said if he really was going to follow through, he would agree to the consequence. The reason for his resistance was that he knew he probably wouldn’t follow through. After consideration, he realized they were right and things weren’t going to change. He agreed to the consequence, fulfilled the commitment, and they are now happily married.
Sometimes a challenge allows us to see the real issues more clearly. One quick and easy way to gauge how committed someone is to change is to use the $100 test. The $100 test is where you ask the person, “If you do not do what you said, will you be willing to give me $100?” The answer often reveals whether they are serious about changing. You may even want to ask for $1000 and watch their response.
Another way to implement a consequence is to ask the person what they think should be done if they don’t fulfill their promise. I like this strategy, because it gets the other person involved in making sure things change. It also reveals how serious a person really is about changing. You could say, “In the spirit of honesty, I need to know that I can trust that this is really going to change. If you are committed to changing, what will you be willing to do as a consequence if things don’t change?” Then allow the person some time to think and respond. If the person gives an easy consequence, you can push and challenge them about it, but you should understand that they are probably not committed to change. If someone really is going to change, they will have no problem making a major commitment with a severe consequence. Why? Because they know the consequence is not going to happen, because they know they are going to keep their promise.
4. Acknowledge the person if and when things do change.
Appreciation lets the other person know that you are aware of their efforts. It also goes a long way to encouraging someone to build their momentum and continue to change.
HAVE YOU BROKEN TRUST?
If you have broken someone’s trust, flip the advice around. First, sincerely and immediately apologize. Then tell them specifically what you are going to do differently. To give them confidence that you are really going to change, establish a severe consequence that you will self-impose if things do not change.
One piece of advice — if you do change and the person keeps bringing up the past, it is fair to ask of them, “What needs to happen so that you stop bringing up the past?” Often people are unaware of how frequently they bring up the past, and until you point it out, they do not recognize that things really have changed. Make sure you have really changed before you do this.
Trust is the foundation of any great relationship, at work and at home. Without trust, a relationship is like a car on blocks. It isn’t going anywhere… and after a while, it will rust and deteriorate. You can make a difference by taking a few simple steps to put your relationship back on track. You hold the keys.