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Can we restore trust?

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

"Trust is like a mirror – break it and you can never put it together again." Many people assume the saying to be a truism. However, recent research has questioned this assumption.

The research is especially topical now as individuals and organizations operate during a time of business uncertainty when they depend more than ever on the degree of trust in their relationships with others.

Trust is the willingness to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations about another’s behavior.

To study the dynamics of trust, trust violations and restoration of trust, Professor John Hershey from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, set up a money game that allowed his team to measure changes in trust over time.

The experiment revealed that “trust harmed by untrustworthy behavior can be effectively restored when individuals observe a consistent series of trustworthy actions.” Also, making a promise to change behavior can help speed up the trust recovery process.

But the experimenters found when a person’s trust is violated by deception, their trust is difficult to restore (such as when a friend forgets to return something and then lies about it or a work colleague doesn’t meet a deadline and then lies about the reason for missing it).

Trust is essential in daily business, whether we are relying on a colleague to finish their part of a project, a worker trusting her boss to compensate her for working long hours, or a customer trusting that the company will deliver a product on time.

Yet breaches of trust are common, ranging from serious misdeeds like fraud to lesser breaches such as taking credit for someone else’s work.

The Wharton experiment found that trust can recover from a period of untrustworthy actions, but deception causes significant and enduring harm.

Even when the deception was followed by trustworthy actions, trust recovered more slowly and less completely than when players were not deceived.

The researchers found different results for a promise and apology. A promise to change behavior helped to restore trust, especially initially, but a promise was not as effective when there had been deception. An apology didn’t seem to be significant in restoring trust.

While an apology seems ineffective, the fact that a promise made a difference runs against the idea that “words are cheap.” Words did matter in the experiment.

The Wharton study couldn’t simulate the dynamics of a real workplace experience and most of the findings were commonsense, but it did lead to some practical advice about recovering trust. Managers working to rebuild trust should be sure that people are aware of their trustworthy behavior. When it comes to trust, actions matter, but they don’t always speak louder than words.



  1. Knowledge@Wharton newsletter, 26 July 2006. "Promises, lies and apologies: is it possible to restore trust?


About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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