Rebuilding broken trust is tough, but it can be done. (iStock Photo)
FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
This is the last in a series of articles on trust within the ranks of law enforcement agencies. We’ve previously looked at:
- Some real examples of what can happen when the brass and officers don’t trust each other.
- What the brass does to bust trust and warning signs that trust may be lacking in your agency.
- How to build trust.
Now we’re going to tackle the toughest challenge—rebuilding trust that you, as a leader, have broken.
According to a the 2010 Ethics & Workplace Survey by Deloitte LLP, 30% of working Americans plan to look for a new job when the economy gets better, and of this group, 48% give a loss of trust in their employer as the reason. Worse, Dennis and Michelle Reina, co-authors of Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace (2010), say 90% of employees surveyed report they feel the effects of eroded trust daily.
We’ve previously looked at how management can foster mistrust amongst the ranks. Current events outside departments haven’t helped. The Wall Street implosion that exposed the rapacious greed of banks bundling (aka hiding) bad debt, selling it to customers, and then betting on it failing—along with a Congress that can’t come together for the sake of the nation—leave many of us wondering who we can believe.
And face it, we’re human; we have weaknesses. As long as we have relationships, we’re all going to build and break trust in our lives, either as a result of careless actions or intentional betrayals.
We all can benefit from learning how to rebuild trust. For police leaders, it’s a critical skill. Whether it’s dealing with a public relations nightmare, an ethical dilemma, diminishing resources or trying to implement any workplace change—the presence or absence of trust is key.
If you’re looking for a quick and easy Idiot’s Guide to Rebuilding Broken Trust, forget it. Broken trust is deep. It’s gut-level. It hurts viscerally. People don’t think betrayed; they feel it. Healing such pain is long, hard work. There are no easy fixes, no shortcuts. But it can be done.
Harold J. Duarte-Bernhardt, who bills himself as a relationship failure expert and looks a bit like a former Alaska State Trooper defensive tactics expert I know, offers as good an action plan as I’ve seen in his article How to Regain Lost Trust.
As previously mentioned, Michelle and Dennis Reina wrote a whole book on the subject. Although this article deals only with the trust-breaker, the Reinas cover rebuilding trust from three vantage points:
- The betrayer;
- The person betrayed; and
- Someone who wants to help others work through betrayal.
The following draws from these sources as well as my own experience. Yes, I’ve broken trust, worked to regain it and been betrayed. Haven’t we all? I think these tips would’ve helped me, and I’ll undoubtedly get a chance to try them out.
1. Look in the mirror and reflect: Don’t do this as a delay tactic but think about what you did to break trust and how you’re going to handle the next steps. You may not get any do-overs if you go into this hastily and haphazardly.
2. Admit your mistake: Personally and publicly. This is not an occasion for e-mails, memos or phone calls. Look the officers and staff in the eyes and say the words out loud. Address what caused the loss of trust head on. If you don’t know what you did, find out the same way—in person.
Do not make excuses. There is no room here for “I did (or didn’t do) it because …” Assume responsibility.
Motive counts. This is not about you confessing to make you feel better so you can move on. Instead, this is the first, necessary step in the work you must do to rebuild the trust you broke.
3. Honestly share information and feelings: Let people know how you honestly feel about your mistakes. If you feel guilty or afraid—or both—say so. If your betrayal involved withholding information, misrepresenting or minimizing, lay everything out.
Next, acknowledge that those you betrayed must have some strong thoughts and feelings as well and invite them to share. Don’t be surprised if you’re treated to silence. Acknowledge that as understandable and let people know you’re committing to being candid and honest and, hopefully, they’ll come to trust they can be that way with you.
If people do share, listen. Do not interrupt. When they’re done, acknowledge what they’ve shared and thank them.
4. Take action to change: Words are cheap, especially from a person who isn’t trusted. To regain trust, you’re going to have to show people you’ve changed. Whatever you did to break trust, don’t ever do it again. Then share with officers and staff your action plan. In other words, what you plan to do to regain their trust. Ask them to hold you accountable and give them a mechanism to do so whether it’s progress meetings, evaluations, suggestions cards, questionnaires or some other means.
5. Learn the lesson: Once you’re on the path to rebuilding trust, you can start to reframe the experience and become a better leader for it. Take some quiet time to really consider:
- How and why did this happen?
- Were there circumstances you may not have been aware of that contributed?
- What options do you have in the future for responding differently?
- What have you learned and how have you changed from the experience?
In the words of the Reinas, “When you have let the learning sink in, you feel solace wash over you.” Then you’re ready for the next step.
6. Forgive yourself: This isn’t about shrugging things off. But beating yourself up takes a lot of energy that might better be focused on the challenge of rebuilding the trust you broke. You’re human—for better and worse. It’s not the first time you messed up, and it won’t be the last. Part of the lesson is forgiving yourself and being generous in forgiving others.
7. Rededicate yourself to the behaviors that earn trust in the first place: Focus on the actions we discussed in last month’s article and be consistent. Remember: Motive is important. This isn’t about getting results from others. It’s about doing the right thing for the sake of your own character so you can be the leader your officers and staff deserve.
To rebuild broken trust, you must care deeply enough to humble yourself and to commit to action and change. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”
But if you do care enough to commit to rebuilding broken trust, your agency is going to get a whole lot better. You, your officers and your staff are worth it.
- The Thick Blue Wall, Part 3: Building Trust Instead of Walls
- The Thick Blue Wall, Part 2: How the Brass Busts Trust
- The Thick Blue Wall: When ‘Us vs. Them’ Exists in the Ranks