27 September 2023

Rebuilding trust after a bad beginning

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There will always be times when we make a mess of a project at work. Art Markman* says the important thing is what to do next.

You’re guaranteed to make a few mistakes in your work life. Some of those mistakes are going to be big ones.

You may do something that loses a client, puts a project behind schedule, angers a colleague, or costs your organisation money.

After a significant error, you’re going to need to rebuild trust with your colleagues and team members.

There are several strategies you can use to regain trust.

These are also useful if you are managing a team in which trust among team members has eroded — even if you are not the cause of the breach.

When trust is broken, team members feel they need to take individual responsibility to verify what they have been told, to check work that is being done, and to mind the details of every project.

That behaviour makes the team inefficient and leads to a lot of duplication of effort.

When trust is broken, people have to change their behaviour.

Whether they must be more truthful, more careful, or slower to anger, they have to do something differently in the future than they did in the past.

A key step in the willingness to change behaviour is to acknowledge the errors of the past and to do a clear assessment of what went wrong.

An apology is an important part of that process.

A good apology contains a clear statement of the action or actions you took that are wrong, a commitment for a change in behaviour, and some specific examples of what you will do differently in the future.

Not only does a good apology signals your intention to your team in a public way that you have accepted responsibility for past behaviour and have a path to move forward.

Both of these elements are important for laying the groundwork to rebuild trust.

Apologising does not rebuild trust on its own. It can get team members to pay attention to your future actions, but from there you have to follow through.

It is best to start your path back with projects that have low stakes.

With a low-stakes project, there is a reasonable chance that team members will let you take responsibility so you can demonstrate the changes you have made.

Because the cost of failure is low, other people are not likely to micromanage you.

That is important, because if you succeed at a new project, but other people were paying attention to every detail, you may not get credit for having changed your behaviour.

From that initial set of small projects, you can slowly increase the importance of the projects to increase that sense of trust.

An important dimension to expand is the amount of time the project lasts.

The initial trust-building exercises are likely to have a short turnaround time so that you can demonstrate quickly that you have improved.

You would like to extend the duration of projects to give people confidence that you can maintain good behaviour over a longer period of time.

It’s valuable to expand the project duration before moving on to projects that have higher downside risk.

As before, you are trying to avoid situations in which other team members are tempted to micromanage what you’re doing.

That way, you can maximise the credit you get for improvements in your performance.

Despite your best efforts, you are going to make additional mistakes or perhaps even backslide into a behaviour you’re trying to change.

It’s important to get out in front of those errors when you’re rebuilding trust.

As soon as you notice a problem, you need to communicate it to the rest of the team, along with a statement of what you have done to correct it.

This step matters because rebuilding trust does not mean achieving perfection, but rather it focuses on increasing confidence.

An advantage of acknowledging problems quickly is that most errors are significantly easier to correct when they are addressed immediately, versus when their consequences are allowed to multiply.

In addition, your willingness to be the first one to highlight problems you have caused helps other people to feel that you can be relied on.

Finally, remember that it can take a long time to rebuild trust within your team. You live your life on a different time scale than what other people see.

You see your behaviour every day and know the steps you have taken to correct past problems.

Your teammates may not see your daily improvements. Instead, they are getting information about your performance every few days or weeks.

As a result, you may feel like you have done enough to restore trust with your teammates long before they begin to actually trust you again.

Remember that they are only seeing some of your actions. They cannot witness all of your intentions or the other efforts you have made to improve after an error.

Don’t be discouraged when it takes a while for your teammates to rely on you again.

*Art Markman is a Professor of Psychology, Human Dimensions of Organisations and Marketing, and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

This article was drawn from The Science of Succeeding podcast.

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