Skip to content

Building Trusting Relationships

A SMALL COMPANY was facing difficult times. In an effort to save money, the CEO cut the employee benefits package. A few months later, he rescinded a pay increase that he had previously promised to employees. Rumors began circulating through the company that the CEO was getting a year-end bonus worth millions. Employees were furious. They had been betrayed.

When trust breaks down, it is frustrating and painful. Those who feel betrayed shut down and are unwilling to put themselves at risk. Further, it is difficult for employees to work with people they don’t trust or to work in an environment of distrust and betrayal.

While it would have been better never to have lost the trust of the work force, once it happened, the company leader had to regain it. Trust will not return on its own.

To rebuild trust among workers, managers must acknowledge what has happened and allow employee feelings to surface. Leaders must then create context, take responsibility, and ask for forgiveness. They should also offer ongoing support. At this point, the entire work force can move on.

Acknowledge Facts

The CEO in our example needs to address the pay issues at the organizational level. If benefits or merit pay are going to be negatively affected by some event, he needs to establish a timely information program. He should tell employees what is happening as soon as possible.

Acknowledge Emotions

Next, the company’s executive must seek to understand what people are experiencing and acknowledge their feelings. This means listening to what employees are saying at the water cooler, in the break room, and on the shop floor.

Attending to the negative thoughts of employees is never a fun experience. Managers must work hard to stay neutral. They must not get defensive or try to rationalize the issue at hand. People are entitled to their feelings, and one of a manager’s roles is to listen, observe, and acknowledge.

Managers must give employees permission to express their concerns, issues, and feelings in a constructive manner. Managers must create safe forums staffed by skilled facilitators that allow employees to express fear, anger, and frustration. Giving employees this means of venting is the first step toward rebuilding relationships and refocusing on the job.

Employees need to know that managers can relate to what they are saying. When leaders do not acknowledge these emotions, workers may feel that the company’s betrayal is compounded.

Create Context

In addition to allowing employees to express their emotions, managers should discuss the big picture and put controversial decisions into context. For example, the CEO of one multinational company traveled to every field office in the Northeast to address anticipated downsizing in the area. This not only helped bridge the gap between headquarters and workers in the field, it also helped employees understand corporate decisions.

Leaders should honestly discuss business changes and why they occurred. In meetings with employees, managers should focus on the issues at hand but should also help employees see what is best for the company, and ultimately, for them.

Take Responsibility

It is not helpful to try to spin the truth or cover mistakes. Instead, managers must tell the truth with no justifications or rationalizations. For example, if the company expects to downsize, it should let workers know what will occur and why. Telling the truth will have more of an effect on workplace relationships than any other action. And if there have been mistakes in the handling of any situation, leaders should simply acknowledge these problems as well. When leaders acknowledge mistakes and apologize, they go a long way towards rebuilding trust.

Having accepted responsibility, leaders should then look to employees to accept theirs. Employees may not have control over change, but they do have control over how they choose to respond. Managers should make it clear that, even though people may feel betrayed, those feelings do not make revenge or open hostility acceptable. With all of these issues out in the open, the manager will have a better chance of reversing the spiral of distrust.

It is critical for managers to remember that rebuilding trust does not mean giving back what was taken away. This may not be possible, in any case. For example, if jobs were lost in downsizing, they cannot be returned.

This is also the time to lay out future expectations. Employees want to know what is expected of them and what they can expect in return. This strengthens the trust between managers and employees.

Leaders should, of course, avoid making promises they can’t keep. Also, when it becomes clear that a promise made in good faith will not be realized, managers should renegotiate those promises rather than simply failing to deliver.

Ongoing Support

Trust is more quickly rebuilt and retained if managers represent their employees’ interests, defend them from unwarranted criticism, and lobby for resources critical to their jobs. By backing workers, leaders build trust and meet the implicit expectations people have of leaders. Managers can use these opportunities to demonstrate that they can be counted on to keep their word.


For the trusting relationship to return, employees must be able to forgive management for its perceived betrayal. Most employees will be willing to forgive, but some will not, and their attitude may affect not only their own productivity but also the workplace at large. If these issues cannot be resolved, these employees should be asked to leave.

Building trust takes time and commitment. When trust is lost, it is regained only by a sincere dedication to the key behaviors and practices that earned it in the first place. The road back is not easy. However, by listening, telling the truth, keeping promises, and backing up employees, managers can play an instrumental role in helping employees heal, rebuilding trust, and renewing relationships.

Dennis S. Reina, Ph.D., and Michelle L. Reina, Ph.D., are cofounders of Chagnon & Reina Associates, Inc, a consulting firm in Stowe, Vermont. This article is excerpted from their book Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers. To order a copy, call 800/929-2929 or