I’m an advocate of leaders practicing Swift Trust in the workplace. Instead of requiring team members or colleagues to perform an elongated walk-on-hot-coals to prove they are trustworthy, make “I trust you” your default mode from minute one.

Practicing Swift Trust makes a big difference as others easily pick-up on your trust cues and generally reciprocate. (Research in brain science suggests our decision to trust someone sends out strong social signals readily captured by those we are engaging with at the time.)

Given that time-to-trust is an essential driver of time-to-performance on teams, the approach makes sense, yet it is not risk-free—it will backfire from time-to-time. Leaders must learn to expertly navigate situations when their Swift Trust proves wrong with an individual. After all, everyone is watching and voting with their decision to continue to trust you as a leader or peer.

Navigating Situations When Your Swift Trust Backfires

1. The Performance Letdown

In some cases, individuals will over-promise and under-deliver. In other cases, they simply won’t live up to your expectations. Your instinct is to withdraw your trust given the evidence, and while that might be the right path, consider hitting the pause button first. Investing time in exploring the root causes of the performance shortfall can pay dividends and salvage the relationship.

Deming taught us through his famous Red Bead experiment that variations in performance are often a result of systemic flaws in the organization or management system. In the case of an individual letting you down on performance, take time to explore the circumstances and processes that led to the disappointing outcome.

Good people—people you’ve decided to trust—are often frustrated and disappointed in themselves when they fall short of commitments or expectations. (Another indicator that your decision to trust them was well-placed.) They also often understand where they went wrong and what obstacles they failed to negotiation as part of the process. Instead of chastising or shifting to a “don’t trust” mode, consider empowering them to suggest or implement the needed changes.

Your willingness as the leader to not only resist backing the bus over them by withdrawing your trust but your commitment to doubling-down and giving them the power to fix broken processes, will pay dividends and help salvage the relationship.

Did I mention that everyone is watching you?

2. The Betrayal

Admittedly, I struggle with even mentioning the concept of betrayal as it relates to workplace situations. I’ve observed too many evil managers and top leaders demand absolute loyalty and view simple transgressions such as sharing insights with a colleague in another department as an outright betrayal.

There’s no place for this demand of false loyalty in our organizations. Yet, betrayal can take place on a personal level between you and someone you gave your trust to without anything other than the expectation they were worthy of it. A few examples include:

  • The peer who supports you to your face, but actively works to subvert your agenda with your colleagues.
  • The team member who channels his inability to get his job done into false complaints of your management malfeasance.
  • The team member who blatantly shirks a commitment to you or a team member and fails to implement a back-up plan.

Whatever the circumstances, the betrayal involves a deliberate choice by the individual to do something that goes against what you two had agreed upon as appropriate. These are painful moments for the leader who gave her trust with only the expectation it would be reciprocated. While it’s tempting to adopt a zero-tolerance policy and sweep that person from your orbit, I encourage you to consider a “second-chance” approach when this happens.

Conversation Strategies for Navigating a Betrayal of Trust

With a team member who reports to you, try:

It upsets me that you opted to take this path. I’ve willingly given you my trust, and you effectively threw it back in my face. It’s disappointing, and it hurts. I still believe in your ability to contribute, and I would like to propose we reset and start fresh with our trust. What would this look like for you? Let’s talk about this.

With a peer, try:

I’m disappointed you took that path. I perceived we had an agreement on an approach. I trusted you, and you betrayed that trust. That hurts, and it makes it difficult for us to do our best work together. I propose that we reset and build an improved working and communication relationship based on trust. However, I need to know if this is of interest to you and what you perceive we can do to avoid this type of situation in the future.

Admittedly, these are difficult discussions. I’m comfortable with you expressing how you feel and quietly imposing a condition upon the go-ahead by shifting the onus to the other party to talk about what the future relationship should be like.

The verbiage sounds and feels awkward, but it is designed with a purpose in mind—to elicit empathy and set the stage for reconciliation. And while some have suggested this type of approach makes them sound and look weak, I believe the opposite. Much of leading is about finding ways through the muck with difficult people. Your willingness to try and clean up the situation for both of you is a sign of strength.

What to Do When Your Trust is Chronically Trampled On

I’ve salvaged more than a few relationships with the above approaches. However, not every person responds the way you hope. Chronic over-committing and under-performance quickly shift away from a trust issue to a coaching approach with teeth.

Peer situations are a bit more complicated. Anyone who leads will face competitors in the workplace. Some are competing for resources, some want your job, and some have just decided they want you gone from the situation. More often than not, they view you as a threat.

While I never advocate stooping to the level of doing anything unethical, I have no qualms about competing with and striving to defeat a toxic rival. You do this through cultivating “clean power” by strengthening your networks and deploying coalitions in pursuit of helping the organization and then making heroes out of the people doing the work. I prefer to overwhelm my untrustworthy adversaries with success instead of stooping to their level of toxic gamesmanship.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There are no significant accomplishments in our organizations without trust. Instead of allowing human nature to dictate a long, slow trust-development process, consider rewriting the rules and accelerating time-to-trust. Just recognize that occasionally, this approach will backfire and it’s up to you to respond appropriately. Your choice of response will decide whether people truly trust you to lead.

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