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Repairing breaches of trust

by | Essay

“Trust is like a mirror. You can fix it if it’s broken,
but you can still see the crack in that mother fucker’s reflection.”

― Beyonce and Lady Gaga


As I was exploring this topic, I was surprised to find that more research seems to have been done on violations of trust than on repairing trust. I’m not quite sure why this is the case. Perhaps, it is because it is easier to violate trust than it is to repair it. Or, maybe we violate trust more often than we repair it, leaving researchers with a more robust repository of material from which to study. Whatever the explanation, the focus here is on repairing breaches of trust.

When something occurs that negatively affects the trust that someone has placed in you, it’s not uncommon for them to express their feelings in powerful and vivid terms. When people reach for words to describe trust, they routinely portray it as an object—as something that can be “broken” or “destroyed.” In some cases, people even use words like “violated” or “betrayed” when describing how they feel when that sense of trust has been broken.

Trust, it turns out, is fragile, and once broken, it can be very hard to repair.

However you prefer to describe it, broken bonds of trust can create a gap in our relationships—what so many refer to as a breach. This article is for those who are ready to acknowledge their role in whatever events led to that breach—be that with one individual or with many. This is for the repairers of the breach.

Explaining Breaches of Trust

When a breach of trust has occurred, the individual or individuals who believe a violation has occurred almost always seek to understand why. We don’t like not knowing why our trust was broken, so we look for reasons to explain why it happened. Researchers call this the “attribution process” and attribution theory tells us that we feel better when we can attribute the breach of trust to something tangible.

Those who study trust for a living have found two primary sources of attribution when individuals seek to explain breaches of trust. Some people attribute the transgression to the individual and to some sort of deficiency or flaw inside of that person. Other people attribute transgressions to the situation, or to something external to the individual in question. Of course, both kinds of attribution occur and, yes, it will depend on the circumstances. That said, people tend to gravitate to one attribution over the other.

We see these attributions every day in the explanations people use when trying to explain their behavior. “It’s not my fault. The environment or the situation drove me to act the way I did.” As a consultant, I hear these kinds of explanations all the time. The insinuation is that there’s something very powerful in their world that drove them to act like they did, and it’s beyond their control.

An alternative explanation, and one I hear less often, attributes the transgression to a personal flaw. “I screwed up. I did that because I was scared or hurt, or because I was selfish.” Needless to say, few people willingly turn here first.

Attribution Errors

Since I’m appealing to those who seek to restore trust, let me address a question that always comes up. What if the other person has placed blame for the breach of trust in the wrong place? What if they’ve landed, incorrectly from your perspective, on the wrong conclusion to explain what transpired?

Remember, people can and do make mistakes when they search for an explanation for breaches of trust. Scholars have repeatedly shown us through research that when we make attributions about the behavior of others, we often over-emphasize internal factors (like ability, benevolence, and even integrity) and under-emphasize situational factors.

When someone is suspicious of you, or if they simply don’t like you, it is easy for them to explain events as an indication of your fatal flaws. They attribute what went wrong to something that they perceive to be wrong in you. On the other hand, when they deeply like you (or when they don’t want to question their favored judgment about you) it is quite easy to attribute what went wrong to the environment. They place the blame not on you, but on things outside and beyond your control.

While there are lots of ways a person can explain a transgression, repairing breaches of trust require a conversation between the parties involved. You can’t repair something if you’re not sure where it’s broken. It takes two to repair a relationship and that begins with a conversation.

In a conversation, both parties need to have a voice. This means it is less effective for you to jump to explanations or justifications without an understanding of the perspective of the person who feels harmed. Repairing breaches of trust are not about the arguments you can make to persuade the other person to change their attribution. Reparation starts after you’ve listened deeply to the aggrieved.

Here’s a road map for those who want to repair the breach.

The Road Toward Reparation

First, you have to want to repair the breach. That seems obvious and it’s more than I can address in this article, so I’ll leave that alone. Second, like the person who feels harmed by your transgression, you also have to be willing to explore the reasons why the breach occurred. This means you must be willing and able to look at what unfolded with some distance.

Let’s assume you’re on step two and you are willing to look at this with a measure of objectivity. If this is the case, you need to discern how the other person explains your behavior. How do they see the events that unfolded? To what do they attribute the divide?

As I hinted earlier, there are some people who will give you the benefit of the doubt. They will attribute the transgression to factors largely outside of your control. For them, repairing the breach will require you to either remove yourself from those situations or to make a commitment to gain the skills necessary to exert more control of how you respond to those situations. If you can’t fully control your environment, work on improving how you react in those kinds of environments. You can move toward reparation by demonstrating a greater ability to navigate compromising situations.

In business, this means that even if you can’t remove the competition and unbridled ambition from your workplace, you can demonstrate what legal scholar Derrick Bell calls in his book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, “ethical ambition.” You can anticipate the situations in your environment that make it seem “reasonable” to step on or to step over colleagues and employees. You can demonstrate an ability to grow from difficult situations by learning from your mistakes and by not making the same mistake each time the same situation arises.

Unlike the previous example, there are some people who will not automatically give you the benefit of the doubt. They will attribute the transgression to factors largely within your control. For them, repairing the breach will require you to work on your character. If people perceive that your breach of trust can be attributed to something about you, they want you to own up to your personal deficiencies before they consider trusting you again.

Humility, contrition, and sincere apologies are the first place you need to start. Express regret and acknowledge personal responsibility for your role in what unfolded. It does you no good when you blame the situation for something that rests in your control. You may get away with that explanation the first time, but it’s highly unlikely to work in the future if, and, when the same situation surfaces.

If you’re seeking to repair a breach of trust, I hope this will speak to you. Repairing trust requires effort and care. The journey back to trusting relationships will require you to locate where others are along the path. Only then can you begin to show them it is safe for them to step over the breach.

A Special Note To Those On the Other Side of the Breach

If you’re the person whose trust has been breached, perhaps this will help you better understand the conclusions you’ve drawn, as well as the factors that led you to draw those conclusions. Remember, trust is something you extend to another person. If you choose to withdraw trust, that’s your right to do so. Just make sure you’re withholding trust for the right reasons. And, if you do decide to trust again, do so with a full and honest recognition of the true reasons why it was breached in the first place.

About the author: Dr. A.J. Robinson is the founder and CEO of Symphonic Strategies, a firm that specializes in collective action, leadership development, and systems change. He’s a strategist, teacher, and activist for policies and practices that elevate. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.