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How to restore broken trust on a team

Once upon a time, I led an amazing team that was the core service arm to a large division in a company. The clincher was: the team was located 1,500 miles away in the corporate office while I worked remotely.

So, twice a month I’d fly to the main office to connect with my team and other departments. Usually when I landed in the late afternoon, I’d walk into the office to a warm and joyful welcome! I felt like Norm on “Cheers!”

But on one particular day, something went very awry.

Now, this was a great group of people, but most of them hadn’t chosen me as their manager. I was promoted to a director position, and they were assigned to my team from other areas of the organization.

I had spent several months cultivating trust in the team: spending one-on-one time with each team member, getting to know their giftings, workloads, and unique attributes. Then in team meetings, I would draw out those perspectives—seeking out each person’s thoughts on their areas of expertise—which, over time, began building a collective team trust.

I slowly began to see this team knit together as each person discovered his and her own role. Each of them began working more efficiently—even helping each other—and I was able to focus less on individuals and more on the overall team strategy and direction.

On this particular day, however, there had been a fallout. Worse yet, it was my fault.

I had failed to communicate certain role expectations. That lack of communication led to confusion, high emotions, and a team breakdown. I arrived at the office as quickly as I could and immediately brought the team together in order to understand the issue.

It took a couple weeks of intentionality, humility, and clear communication, but here’s how we restored trust after that breakdown.

First, actively listen

Let’s be honest, broken trust is never fun. It sucks. And it sucks even more when it was your own fault. But digging in your heels and making excuses is not going to help here. You may actually have some really good reasons for why this happened, or even context that the team can’t be aware of, but this is not the time to be defensive.

You. Must. Listen.

Listen to each person without planning what you’re going to say. Watch their facial expressions and body language, and listen to their tone. Put yourself in their shoes to understand their very legitimate feelings at this moment.

If this is just a one-on-one conversation, it can flow more organically. But if this is a group conversation, then you also need to ensure that each person gets a chance to share their vantage point, and your thoughts should come last—after you’ve heard and digested what everyone has shared.

Second, humbly acknowledge your role in it

Two of the most powerful words in the world, when spoken authentically, are “I’m sorry.”

Regardless of whether you intended to break trust, you need to acknowledge it and own it. I recall telling my team, “You are right. I’m so sorry. I dropped the ball here by not clarifying the priority of this project and who’s responsible for which piece.”

I’d spent so much time one-on-one with each team member—getting to know their personalities, skills, and wiring—that I hadn’t taken a step back to realize that one person’s “drive” was going to be inferred by another person as “bossy.” And since I wasn’t physically in the office, I wasn’t seeing the potential for this collision.

Third, clearly communicate changes and next steps

Before the meeting ended, after apologizing, I stated what I should have said a week earlier. I clarified the priority of this project, what was needed for each person. Then I asked each person to think through what I said and tell me what conflicts they had—what other responsibilities would have to be set aside to accomplish this goal.

Slowly, methodically, and with painstaking detail, we combed through each person’s task list and made hard calls about what would have to be set aside for this team goal. At the end, the team felt that they had a much better grasp of what was expected of them, and they knew I had their back on tasks that would have to be temporarily deprioritized in order to hit the current goal.

Fourth, follow up on those next steps intentionally

Follow-through is key here. Just because the team seemed OK after the meeting, it’s like anything in life—thoughts hit you later, and you process more after the fact. So, although there’s no need to re-live the experience, it’s wise and supportive to ask each team member a few days later questions like:

  • Is there anything else you wish you would have said?

  • Is there anything that’s unclear with the current goals?

  • Is there a new scenario that you’re not sure how to navigate?

If the team knows you’re authentic enough to listen, be humble, and care enough about them to make sure they have the tools and information to do their job, then trust can be restored much faster than you might expect.

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