Can we restore trust?
Trust is the willingness to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations about another’s behavior.
“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, 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. Of course, this takes place against the backdrop of concern caused by inequality in so many countries, reflected by the UK Brexit vote in 2016 and the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election. These events reveal a trust crisis around the world.
The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer international survey showed a global trend of distrust of the four main institutions of government, business, media and NGOs. Nevertheless, personal trust can be reviewed on a different basis – on the basis of interpersonal relationships.
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 personal 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.
Knowledge@Wharton newsletter, 26 July 2006. “Promises, lies and apologies: is it possible to restore trust?