The most important element in any business relationship is trust. Even if you know that a certain vendor or service provider is cheaper, you’ll probably stay away from them if you don’t trust them. By the same token, you’ll probably be willing to pay a bit more to work with an attorney, financial advisor, or other skilled professional if they’re worthy of your trust.
Unfortunately, trust can be broken in many ways in professional relationships, often with damaging, long-term consequences. Let’s look at some of the ways trust can be breached, and how we can work to repair it.
We’re all familiar with the causes of broken trust: When someone lies to you, for instance, or misses a major deadline. But just as insidious are the small things that erode trust over time. When you tell someone you’ll call them soon, do you? When a customer or employee emails you a question, how long does it take you to reply? When you’re headed out to scheduled meetings, are you on time or furiously texting “running late” messages?
We tell ourselves that they’re only little things. That we fully intended on making that call, replying to that query, and arriving to that meeting on time. But what we think of as small hiccups are in fact making a very damaging statement about ourselves.
When we commit to doing something for another person, it matters whether or not we follow through in the way we said we would. When we don’t, we’re telling them that they don’t really matter to us; that we’re happy to put our interests ahead of theirs. We’re creating a gap between the person we say we are (“I’ll call you back on Monday at 10”) and the person we really are — the one who fails to meet our business commitments.
Once, when I worked at the FBI’s New York Field Office, a mass threat arrived by email, targeting individuals who had identified themselves on social media as government employees. The origin was soon identified: an entity that was in the habit of using a bot-style system to deliver threats. They’d sent these types of messages before without consequence, but out of an abundance of caution, we took the step of reaching out to every person named in the email.
Predictably, their responses were all over the spectrum. Most, after hearing the facts, assumed that the threat was false. However, one person on my list was very worried. He peppered me with questions and called me back several times that night. I ended each conversation by assuring him that yes, I would contact him if there were any updates.
The next day we determined that the threat was indeed false. That night, my very worried person called me again to see if we had any updates. I told him in that fact we did; that we’d learned earlier in the day that threat was non-credible. The man was justifiably livid. Why hadn’t I call him as I’d promised? I apologized profusely, but the damage was done.
The loss of trust follows a predictable pattern. The person you broke your agreement with begins to scale back their impression of you. Every word you say to them is filtered through your past behavior.
Minor slights, when repeated, cause the aggrieved person to question their value to you. The result? They’ll take their business elsewhere. People always go where they are valued most.
Assessing the Problem
If you’re in the habit of “over-promising and under-delivering,” your coworkers and clients have probably dropped subtle hints to you. Going over the clues they’ve left can lead directly to the issues you should be addressing. A helpful exercise might be to examine your personal and professional relationships and list the issues that have been raised in both realms. If one or two faults appear on both lists, it’s safe to say that they aren’t outliers or one-offs.
Some believe that feedback in the form of a 360-degree evaluation is the best way to identify issues. The idea is to get feedback not only from your supervisor, but from your peers, the people you manage, and others you come in contact with. I’m a big fan of simplicity, though. It’s important to attack the obvious issues right away. You know what they are, so what’s the sense in creating more layers of examination?
In the FBI, after a major arrest or training operation, all the participants meet for what’s called a “hotwash” briefing, the purpose of which is to critique the operation and identify areas for improvement. Hotwashes can be brutal. Lives are on the line during each operation, and one misstep can result in a tragic outcome. Learning from mistakes is considered vital to the team, and no one gets a pass. Whoever makes an error is called upon to explain what happened and why. You learn quickly never to make excuses for your actions. Not only do excuses intensify the grilling, they call your very character into question.
When I was training as a candidate for the New York Office hostage negotiation team, the final test was an all-day, multiple-scenario crisis situation. Experienced negotiators were on hand to act as key role players and evaluators. Intentionally, the day was filled with stress. No one wanted to make a mistake. Mind you, no one left the exercise unscathed. Everybody made mistakes or failed at some small detail of their role. I was no exception.
One of the candidates in our class, though, could not own up to his mistakes. He always had an excuse or rationale for why he wasn’t at fault. The instructors explained to him in painstaking, granular detail that yes — he was at fault, and that his habit of defending his errors was a flaw in his character that he needed to address.
A Strategy for Repair
As they say, recognizing that there is a problem is half the battle. When you see people around you beginning to lose confidence in you, you know it’s time for a change. Acknowledge the problem, and, if appropriate, apologize. Keep in mind, though: Apologies must always be accompanied by a commitment to change. This is where “and” comes in. “And” is the first step of fixes.
Early in my FBI career, I was asked to assist another squad with a surveillance as part of an espionage investigation. The surveillance was to take place at a restaurant in the Washington, D.C., area. My role would be to identify whom the subject was meeting with and record the interaction, if possible. I spent the day of the surveillance putting together a report that was due by close of business. By midafternoon I was still engrossed in my project. Time got away from me, and before I realized it, I was running late.
I called the case agent to let him know. Not a problem, he said, but the irritation was plain in his voice. I arrived on scene about 30 minutes late. It turned out the subject was late, too, so I didn’t miss the meeting. But the damage was done. I had violated a central tenet of FBI culture: to be on time. As the saying goes in law enforcement circles, “If you’re not early, you’re late.” Well, I was plenty late, and I’d caused the team undue stress because of it. I’d also harmed my reputation. Did I apologize? Better believe I did. Being sorry didn’t fix the damage I’d caused. I decided that night, on my painfully long trip home, that I would never be avoidably late again.
When we have evidence of gaps between our behavior and who we believe ourselves to be, we must act to change.
The changes don’t have to be monumental shifts in behavior, either. For example, if it’s pointed out to you that people only hear criticism from you, then an easy fix is to set a goal of complimenting someone. Each day your goal is to engage one person in your workplace about a recent accomplishment, or some character trait you admire about them. Soon enough this small change will take hold, and not only will people see you differently, there is a good chance your team’s performance will improve. The concept of “Acknowledge-And” marries acknowledgment with a new set of actions that make a course correction in your behavior.
When you decide to make good on your apology, your word will begin to regain the weight it once held.
The people you work with will notice that you’re making an effort to eradicate a negative pattern of conduct. When others see you striving to improve yourself based on the input they’ve provided, it can have a very positive effect on your organization. The very act of making a positive change can inspire momentum among the people you work with. You’ve taken responsibility for past behavior and you’re taking action: Acknowledge-And.
Breaking small commitments repeatedly harms our existing business relationships and our ability to grow them in new and profitable directions. Be true to your small commitments. Show up early to meetings. Schedule time at the end of the day for returning phone calls and emails. Small acts, done consistently, will transform how people see you, and make you worthy of the trust they place in you.