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Workplace healing to rebuild trust

Posted by Jesse Nunes  January 26, 2009 09:00 AM

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By Michelle Reina, Ph.D.

More than ever, there is a need for trustworthy relationships. The national workplace has become one of constant change and ambiguity, which does more to break trust than to build it. In this environment, effective workplace relationships - those built on trust - commonly deteriorate.

Our image of the workplace as we once knew it no longer exists. People are experiencing breaches of trust in major and minor ways. Examples of major breaches include significant abuses of power, corporate mismanagement, abdication of responsibility for effective governance, and spinning or distorting the truth for personal gain. Minor breaches of trust involve breakdowns in communication and failure to create appropriate levels of transparency, gossiping, and infighting with the loss of shared vision.

In this climate, it is challenging to develop relationships built on trust. Many people feel helpless and at a loss for how to respond. We can easily say that trust in others has eroded, but it is equally important to understand that trust in "self" is lost. When trust erodes, it is not just workplace relationships but also performance that suffers. While distrust causes pain, doubt and confusion, if people make a choice to work through broken trust, they can rebuild it and strengthen working relationships.

Leaders play an important role in an organization, and their role in rebuilding trust is particularly vital. It begins with their recognition that healing is needed. The cost of overlooking this need is too high to be ignored. Leaders can use the Seven Steps for Healing™ as a road map for rebuilding trust. Trust is everyone's responsibility, and leaders can begin with these steps, knowing that when the workplace has a foundation of trusting relationships, success may be achieved.

1. Observe and acknowledge what has happened.

Be aware and assess the health of your organization. Notice what people are experiencing and acknowledge it. Pay attention to both the obvious and subtle behaviors that are building and breaking trust. Healing begins when leaders acknowledge what has occurred, its effect on people and the organization, identifying resulting loss and fear.

2. Allow feelings to surface.

Give people permission to express their concerns and feelings in constructive ways. During change, people often feel anxious and vulnerable, wondering if they have what it takes to be successful in the new environment, questioning themselves and their leaders.
Create safe forums that allow people to express their fear, vulnerabilities, doubts, and needs. Doing so helps them begin to let go of negativity, freeing up energy for rebuilding relationships and returning their focus to performance.

When people are in pain, they do not care about the needs of the business until it is clear that the business cares about them.

3. Get support.

Recognize people's needs. A common mistake leaders make is failing to seek support for themselves and their employees during challenging times. They assume that "we can manage on our own." Rebuilding trust is hard work, and it requires support.

Something powerful occurs when broken trust is truthfully acknowledged; not altered, justified, or defended. People are able to shift from placing blame to seeking to understand; from judgment and criticism to considering extenuating circumstances; from abdication of responsibility to problem solving and taking responsibility; from loss to possibilities. Leaders and employees need support to fully understand its effects, and the actions necessary to move through the healing process.

4. Reframe the experience.

Put the experience into a larger context. Help people see the bigger picture, reflect on extenuating circumstances, notice the business reasons for change, and explore opportunities that change represents.

Engage in inquiry. Healing is a process of inquiry and occurs when people have an opportunity to have questions answered. Responding to employees' questions honestly offers an understanding of the bigger picture, which leads to renewed hope for trusting relationships.
During change, people often feel vulnerable. With support, leaders answer questions and openly discuss the impact of those changes on people. Leaders help people see that while they may not have control over what is occurring, they do have control over how they choose to respond.

5. Take responsibility.

Take responsibility for your role. Spinning the truth or covering up mistakes is unhelpful. People see right through this, and trust is further diminished. Taking responsibility means acknowledging mistakes. Telling the truth without rationalization demonstrates a leader's trustworthiness and exposes vulnerability. Doing so makes it safe for others to expose their weaknesses, seek support, and take responsibility for their behavior. Sometimes the three simple words, "I am sorry," takes that responsibility, and this goes a long way to rebuilding trust.

Trustworthy leaders acknowledge the impact change has on their employees, and take responsibility for their role and help employees take responsibility also.

6. Forgive yourself and others.

Recognize that forgiveness is freedom. Anger, bitterness, and resentment deplete energy levels and interfere with relationships and performance. This undermines morale, productivity, innovation, engagement, and erodes trust. Leaders can help cultivate a healing, trustworthy environment where forgiveness takes place. By helping people exercise compassion, a shift from blame to problem solving occurs, this opens possibilities for the future by changing attitudes about the past.

Trustworthy leaders help people exercise compassion therefore shifting the blame towards leadership and the organization into focusing on individual needs, roles, and the needs of the business.

7. Let go and move on.

Accept what is so. Acceptance is experiencing the reality of what is happening without blame. People accept what is so when they separate themselves from their preoccupation with the past and invest their emotional energies in creating a different future.

Take the time and make the commitment. When trust is lost, it is regained by a sincere dedication to these key behaviors and practices. Journey back to trust by compassionately listening, being honest, giving the benefit of the doubt, seeking to understand, and practicing trust building behaviors.


Michelle Reina, Ph.D., CEO and Co-Founder, Reina, Inc.: Trust Building for Business, www.ReinaTrustBuilding.com (802)253-8808, co-author: Trust & Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships in Your Workplace, 2nd Ed.

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About NEHRA - The Voice of HR Featuring articles and resources for Human Resources / HR professional and hiring managers from the Northeast Human Resources Association (NEHRA).
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