The Heart of a Leader: 7 Steps to Rebuilding Trust

Sometimes working relationships are painful. Case in point…
2 years ago

Paul to others: “I don’t trust Ramesh. I feel like he is out to get me. I lay awake at night so stressed wishing for a way out. If I could I’d quit.”

Ramesh to others: “Paul is an unappreciative weasel. He undermines me every change he gets.”

But every working relationship has the possibility to improve…

2 weeks ago

Paul to Ramesh: “How cool is it that we can talk through this stuff without getting frustrated with each other now?”
Ramesh to Paul: “Man, I am glad for that. Things are night and day now. Got lunch plans?”

The Heart of the Leader is about being a leader who looks out for the best interest of others. When a leader looks out for others over time they build trust and respect with those they lead. But when they look out for themselves, or continuously send the message that they are working to move their agenda forward with their self-interest at the forefront then trust and relationships break down. Rebuilding trust might be painful but it is not impossible. I’ve witnessed it first hand with many leaders I’ve worked with over the years and I’ve experienced it myself.

Step #1 Make a Commitment

You have three options when you are faced with a broken relationship. You can either complain about it (which does nothing to change the situation), you can walk away from it, or you can choose to work on rebuilding it. If you choose to rebuild the relationship the most important thing you can do to start is to make a commitment to yourself and to the other person that you are willing to do whatever it takes to make the relationship work. You may want to time stamp this commitment so that it doesn’t feel so open ended. Your commitment might sound something like this. “For the next year, I am going to do whatever it takes to make this relationship productive including being open to changing my own behaviors.”

Step #2 Do what you say you’re going to do

Once you’ve made a commitment to yourself and the other person to rebuild trust in the relationship, ask the other person to share with you what they need to see you do differently in order to rebuild trust with them. In return, share with them what you need to see from them in order to rebuild trust. This time, commit to what you feel you can do differently and then ask them to commit to what they can do differently. But instead of waiting to see them move to action first, focus on doing what you say you’re going to do. Show the other person you are serious and willing to do your part. This is essential in building momentum and reversing the descriptive pattern that’s evolved between the two of you over time.

Step #3 Acknowledge when others do what they say they are going to do

Following through on commitments is a big deal. You’ll increase the likelihood of success dramatically if you acknowledge when the other person has done what they say they are going to do. It reinforces the behavior you want to see and increases the likelihood you’ll see more of it. This can be hard in the beginning because you may not feel like you can genuinely give this person “praise” for following through on their commitment when they should be doing that anyway. I know, I’ve been there myself. But here is the deal, as hard as it is to say, it will help build momentum. Remember you’re reversing a pattern and anything you can do to acknowledge movement in the right direction makes everyone feel like change is possible.

Step #4 Give yourself and others grace

We are all human and without exception the other person will disappoint you. There will be some misstep along the way to rebuilding trust that will feel like the old pattern reemerging. It has the potential to scare you back into your old pattern. There is a part of you that is secretly hoping the other person will fail so that you can say “I told you so” or “I knew he was a jerk. He’s the problem not me.” But being right about the other person being wrong only makes you a continued part of the problem. In order for a new level of trust to emerge, both of you have to be willing to work from a place of trust rather than expecting the worst of each other. When someone lets you down, stand strong by confronting the problem, but with the goal of continuing to get closer to following through on behavior change rather than catching that person living up to your poor expectations of them. And most importantly, give them grace. You will need it yourself one day either from them or someone else.

Step #5 Keep leading and don’t avoid each other

In the middle of the rebuilding trust, you still have a role to play as a leader. You just can’t stop setting direction, asking for support, sharing information, confronting problems, saying yes or maybe saying no. Even if the person you have to say no to or confront is the person you are working to rebuild trust with. The world doesn’t stop because you are suspended in transition in your working relationship. Use these tough encounters as an opportunity to practice doing what you say you’re going to do and rebuild trust.

Step #6 Avoid watercooler talk

It’s a lot easier to talk trash about the person your rebuilding trust with to others than it is to talk about them as someone worthy of your trust. Especially because if they haven’t rebuilt trust yet… they are not worthy of your trust. But if we are going to work from a place of trust, then we need to reframe our conversations with others about our difficult person as well. Instead of talking negatively about the relationship -as it has been in the past- talk about the relationship as you know it can be in the future. Assume the best of intention. Give that person the benefit of the doubt and rather than feeding negativity be the first to share what you think the person in questions positive intent may be.

Step #7 Acknowledge Success 

When the relationship has turned for the better and trust has been restored, don’t hesitate to acknowledge and celebrate the change. If you are lucky enough to have used conflict as a tool to rebuild and strengthen a relationship you have not only salvaged a working relationship but demonstrated to yourself and others that you are capable of navigating a very difficult interpersonal dynamic. You should be proud of yourself and the other person.

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