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Rebuild Trust to Renew Confidence, Commitment, and Energy

Jim Donaldson, CEO of XYZ Company, a multi-divisional corporation, struggled with his predicament. As a result of the economy, his company was going to have to restructure to consolidate departments, layoff staff, and redefine jobs. His employees were concerned, anxious, and even fearful regarding the pending changes.

Jim was feeling the stress of trying to do the 'right thing' for his organization and employees and meet the demands of the times. Uncertain times speak to the need for trust; and, more than ever, there is a need for trustworthy leadership and trusted working relationships. Constant change and ambiguity do more to break trust than to build it, thus compromising effective working relationships.

Jim and his senior leadership team realized it was essential to make the changes, but he also recognized that it was really their employees who bore the brunt of the changes. He knew he needed to re-engage his workforce to keep them productive and the company solvent.

Employees were extremely upset, confused, and anxious upon hearing the news. People were gossiping in the halls regarding the pending changes. They engaged in a lot of self-protective activity, but not much productivity for the company. Given the current situation, it was extremely difficult for employees to focus on their work. Trust in leadership and the company was diminished.

Although trust is challenged and often broken whenever change occurs, change itself does not break trust. It is poor change management that erodes trust, leading people to question their leaders' intentions and compromising relationships and performance.

Leaders often mistakenly assume that broken trust may be reestablished on its own, over time. This view is unrealistic and irresponsible.

Dealing with change as the loss of trust

People often experience change as a loss of the way things used to be. They may resent doing more work for the same pay, fewer benefits, and limited opportunities to earn more. They perceive change as a breach of contract: "This isn't what I signed up for."

People need to express and grieve those losses and acknowledge that what they once had is no longer. Dealing with the emotional side of change and perceived betrayal is difficult but necessary. Many leaders are unskilled and uncomfortable dealing with the change-related pain they and their employees feel.

Rebuilding trust

The Seven Steps for Healing provides a framework that helps leaders and their people work through broken trust, renew relationships, and navigate change through a common language and actions to support healing. Although these steps are presented linearly, healing is not a linear process. People may move through multiple steps of the Seven Steps for Healing simultaneously and may revisit steps.

Step 1: Observe and acknowledge what has happened. To rebuild trust, leaders must listen, observe, and acknowledge. Assess your organization's health by observing its climate. Notice what people are experiencing and how they feel. Pay attention to specific actions that build and break trust. If you notice anger in hallways and break rooms, listen carefully. Anger often represents deeper feelings of hurt and disappointment that must be heard and acknowledged. Leaders must not get defensive or try to justify or rationalize.

Step 2: Allow feelings to surface. Give employees constructive ways to discuss feelings, release negativity and liberate energy for performance. Create safe forums, staffed by skilled facilitators, to encourage constructive expression of concerns and feelings. People in pain don't care about business needs until they know that leaders care about their needs and wellbeing.


Step 3: Get support. Recognize that people have transitional needs to be met before they can adapt to change. Their concerns and questions must be understood and addressed. They must know the organization's direction, the strategies proposed to get there, what is expected of them, and what they can expect from leaders. When leaders expect people to embrace change without having their relationship needs addressed, people feel betrayed. Leaders also need support. Engage a skillful coach that will help people shift from justifying and rationalizing to taking responsibility and seeing possibilities.

Step 4: Reframe the experience. Help people see the experience in a larger context. This is an opportunity to discuss the business's reasons for change and acknowledge those changes and their impact on people. Employees need help seeing that they have choices about how they react to circumstances. Only then will they be ready to accept a new direction and see their role clearly.

Step 5: Take responsibility. Take responsibility for your role in the process; don't try to spin the truth. We take responsibility when we acknowledge our mistakes. Help others take responsibility for their part. People in fear often blame leaders and behave in ways that contribute to betrayal. While employees may not have control over change, they do have control over their response. Be careful of your promises and what you appear to promise. When attempting to rebuild trust, you must not try to justify past actions, and you must address the perceptions of those who feel betrayed. It is enough for an employee to believe a promise was broken for trust to feel violated.

Step 6: Forgive. Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves. It frees us from anger and resentment that deplete our energy, interfering with relationships and performance. People who forgive heal by changing their attitude about the past and seeing new possibilities. People need time to learn forgiveness, and rushing is counterproductive. You can help them heal from their pain, but you cannot erase past events. Leaders should help people shift from blaming to problem solving. Ask and consider what employees need in order to resolve issues and fears, what conversations are necessary and what will make a difference right now.

Step 7: Let go and move on. Accept what can't be changed - starting with the past. Leaders can help people accept the past by facing it without denying, disowning, or resenting it. This helps employees shed their preoccupation with the past and invest emotional energies in the present and future. Building trust takes time and commitment. When trust is lost, it is regained only by a sincere dedication to the behaviors that first earned it. The road back is not easy. However, by listening, telling the truth, keeping promises and taking responsibility, leaders can help employees rebuild trust, reengage, and successfully navigate their organizations through change.

Working the seven steps

As a result of working these seven steps at the company level, XYZ employees embraced the changes. Jim and senior team's due diligence investment in time, money, and energy paid off. Employees were allowed to participate in decisions that affected their jobs and lives. They felt ownership in the implementation of the restructuring decisions, which was a major paradigm shift.

As a result, 27 percent of the jobs slated for layoff were saved and reworked through job sharing and partnering, shorter workweeks or decreased shifts. Morale improved 23 percent on the company's employee satisfaction survey, and the level of trust rose significantly. Sales revenues rose 17 percent in the first quarter.

As a result of working these seven steps at the individual level, Jim and his senior leaders were more effective in leading their employees through the restructuring while rebuilding trust. Their dedication to being more self aware of their behavior helped them be more aware of and sensitive to their employees' struggles. They were not only able to pay attention to the major issues, but because they doing each doing their own work, they were perceptive to the subtle signs and indicators of issues people had. They were able to help people express these concerns and address them before they escalated into major ones.

Jim himself mustered the courage to face issues head-on, have empathy with employees' difficulties, honor them and, with his senior leaders, help employees take responsibility in moving through the changes. As a result, Jim and his senior team rebuilt employee's trust in leadership and the company and renewed their confidence, commitment, and energy.


2010, Trust & Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships In Your Organization, 2nd ed. (Berrett-Koehler).

Dennis S. Reina and Michelle L. Reina are founders of The Reina Trust Building Institute and co-authors of Trust & Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships In Your Organization, 2nd ed. (Berrett-Koehler), from which this article was adapted;

About the Author

Dennis Reina, PhD, is a co-founder of Reina, a trust-building consultancy based in Stowe, Vermont.  Reina is a sought after consultant, speaker, and executive coach. He is co-author of the best selling books, Trust & Betrayal in the Workplace and Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace.  He has been awarded the Global Strategic Leadership Award at the World HRD Congress and has been named by Trust Across America as one of the top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business.  Global clients include American Express, Johnson and Johnson, Harvard University, Kimberly Clark, Turner Broadcasting, and the U.S. Army.   Reach her at, or 802.253.8808.

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