Treat Trust Like a Broken Bone

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young woman holding broken leg in cast

Some things just come naturally. And they can be done with a single action. Throwing a ball, kicking a ball, cooking an egg, reading a book, delivering a speech, delegating a task, or giving feedback.

Ok, maybe all of those don’t come naturally. But they can all be done with a single action.

Other skills take time to develop and hone, like throwing a strike, scoring a goal, making an omelet, writing a book, or motivating someone to positive action.

And then there are behaviors or qualities that require consistent, continuous actions that lead to greater success. Being a pro athlete, being a chef, keynoting a conference, or being a respected leader.

Each of these can withstand miscalculations, missteps, and even mistakes, because these things happen. And when they do, we stop, review, and then get back in the saddle and make things right.

But there is one quality that is much more vulnerable to miscalculations and mistakes. And that is trust.

One betrayal, one false move, or one seemingly insignificant slight can topple all the trust you’ve built. And it is hard, if not impossible, to gain it all back with a quick fix or some soothing words.

That is why we call it “building trust.” Because once broken, we have to start all over again – brick by brick, act by act, conversation by conversation.

We can’t just put a band-aid on broken trust. And stitches won’t help either. This is a case where continuous, consistent healing is required. We have to go through multiple steps to ever hope to rebuild the trust we once had.

For today’s lesson, you might consider rebuilding trust more like healing a broken bone than repairing a deep cut, because rebuilding trust is a long and challenging process, just like healing a broken bone.

Now, for anyone who has gone through the bone healing process, you know how agonizing it can be. And for those of you who are not intimately familiar, you’ve probably known someone who has, or you’ve seen it on TV or the movies.

So, what does this look like in rebuilding trust? Let’s go through the steps.

First, we must reset the break. Just like when a bone is broken and has to be set into place, you’re going to have to do this with your trust partner as well.

You do this by apologizing and accepting full responsibility for your mismanagement of the trust bond. If you don’t take ownership for what was done, there is no reason the other person should believe behavior will change or be any different going forward. And because of that, trust cannot and will not be rebuilt.

Understand, this is going to hurt you more than it will them. And you may have to try to reset the break multiple times, because the other person might need more time, or they might not be in the right mood to hear your apology.

Whatever the circumstances, sooner is better than later. Always allow time for the other person to vent, cry, and be alone. Give physical space. Depending on the severity of the break, and allowing appropriate time, apologize as soon as the other person is in the right place to accept your physical presence. Just like with a misaligned bone, the longer you wait, the harder it will be to reset (if it can be reset at all).

After resetting the bone, you might be tempted to hurry up and move to applying the cast because you want to ensure the bone doesn’t move out of place. But understand, that cast is going to be on for a long time and it very well may press, chafe, and scratch in very uncomfortable ways.

And the same thing can occur when rebuilding trust. So before stating all the ways you are going to be better and not screw up in the future, you need to ensure that your partner feels comfortable and safe in your attempts to rebuild this trust.

And because of that, you need to acknowledge and validate the feelings of betrayal, hurt, disrespect, and any other feelings currently causing pain in this relationship. Just like our bone healing process, we want the trust recovery process to be pain free. We don’t want the cast to be scratching and rubbing and creating callouses, so we have to use cotton padding as cushion before we apply the cast.

And so, in your interactions with your trust partner, that cotton padding means being open, honest, and vulnerable about your shortcomings. (Remember, I said this was going to hurt you more than it will them.) It also means being empathetic to their feelings and vulnerabilities, and being a compassionate, active listener while providing full confidentiality in your conversations.

These actions provide a safe space for your trust partner and are key to rebuilding the trust that has been broken.

After you’ve reset the break, and created a comfortable space, now you can apply the cast to provide strong support so the bone can heal properly. Without this cast, the bone is free to move about and will not be able to recover to its previous strength and stability.

And just like the cast, you need to show that you are going to provide strength and support in your new actions and behaviors.

What does that look like? Well, it all boils down to the ABCDs of trust. According to legendary leadership author, Ken Blanchard, and co-author Cynthia Olmstead, the crux of trust meets at the crossroads of being:

  1. Able
  2. Believable
  3. Connected
  4. Dependable

Let’s start with the letter A. To show you are able, you must demonstrate competence. If the other person has a problem, help them solve it. If they need your guidance, be a good guide. If they need you to listen, just listen. It also means helping them develop their own skills while getting quality results by being the best at what you do. Be fully able.

The next letter is B. Being believable. This means doing what you say you are going to do. It also means being honest and transparent. When you exaggerate, mislead, dodge the truth, or flat out lie, you are weakening the trust you have tried to build back. When you are disrespectful, deceitful, judgmental, talk behind someone’s back, or do not keep confidences, you are dismantling any credibility you might have secured in the past. Always be sincere, straightforward, and stand up for the person you seek to build trust with. You must be believable.

But it doesn’t stop there, because now we are on to the letter C. You need to continue to be connected with the other person. This means showing you actually care about the other person. Some of this was accomplished when you “applied the cotton padding” to make them feel comfortable and safe. But connection goes beyond that.

Being connected means communicating often, listening attentively, praising, showing empathy, asking for input or advice, and sharing a little about yourself too. For some of us, connecting can be difficult because we don’t like to mix business with pleasure or we think work is for work and we don’t bring personal history, preferences, or customs to the workplace.

But always remember that we are holistic humans and we all have likes, dislikes, opinions, and beliefs. And you know what? None of those are business-related; they’re personal. So get used to bringing your whole self to work and let others do so as well. The more you do it, the more natural it becomes and the better the relationship and performance results. Make it a point to get connected.

And finally, D. The last (and possibly most important) piece of building lasting trust is being dependable. This means being reliable and consistent. It means being on time, being responsive to requests, and following up. It also means not going back on your word, doing what you say you will do, and being accountable for your actions. Be dependable.

Just like the cast mending the broken bone, all of these traits combined create a strong and stable situation to rebuild trust with your colleague, partner, spouse, or loved one.

So, how will you reset broken trust with a heartfelt apology, taking full responsibility for your previous actions? How will you create a safe and comfortable space acknowledging and validating the other person’s feelings while also demonstrating vulnerability yourself? And how will you support the rebuilding process through the ABCDs of trust?

Building trust is challenging. Rebuilding trust can be daunting.

But following the ABCDs will ensure you provide the required care, concern, connection, and character to make your trust partner feel safe, secure, and ready to count on you when needed.

Your Mindful Moment:

Building trust is building relationships. And that is the key to leading at work and succeeding in life.

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