Repairing a breach of trust

When it comes to the mechanics of how we trust and how we forgive, there tend to be two types of people, say the authors of The Power of Trust. Organisations looking to regain trust must remember that they are dealing with both groups of people

Repair is complicated and doesn’t happen overnight. The organisation has to prove over and over again that it’s made lasting changes. In addition, different types of people trust differently. A group of business professors dove deep into the mechanics of how we trust and how we forgive by observing how MBA students behaved during a negotiation.

They found that people tend to fall into two groups. The first, those with a fixed mindset, have difficulty changing their mind. They need a lot of information. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset change their minds quickly as soon as they get new information. It comes as no surprise that the two groups react differently to a trust breach.

It tends to be harder to lose the trust of people with a fixed mindset: they will give others the benefit of the doubt and come up with reasons to explain away the trust violation. For example, if they heard about an airbag exploding, they might assume it’s a one-off incident. Companies might know these people as loyal customers and employees. However, if trust violations keep happening, such as if airbags keep exploding, they will eventually change their minds, and winning them back will be a long and slow process.

Conversely, it’s easy to lose the trust of people with a growth mindset. Given information about an airbag exploding, they’ll check their car to see if they have a faulty airbag. However, it is easier to regain their trust. If the company were to come out and say they had identified what had caused the airbags to explode, and that they had data (available to all) that showed that a new and improved production method had eliminated the reason why the airbags had exploded, this group would be likely to buy cars with airbags from the same company again. People with a fixed mindset, however, might avoid the company for life.

Corporations looking to regain trust should keep in mind that they are dealing with both groups of people. They shouldn’t assume that if they continue to make mistakes, loyal customers will stick with them. Moreover, once they’ve started to regain some trust, they cannot assume that the battle is over: they must maintain a consistent enough record to regain the trust of people with a fixed mindset.

The path to regaining lost trust is made all the harder by the fact that people tend to place more weight on negative events than positive ones. But in general, it is much harder for positive trust-building stories to get the attention we pay to stories of trust betrayal – it’s built into our psychology. And little wonder: think about how important it would have been for the evolution and survival of humans to learn to pay greater heed to dangerous events than to those that augured good news.

Psychologist, Paul Slovic, studies trust in nuclear power plants. He asked college students to rate the impact of 45 different hypothetical news stories about a power plant on a scale from 1 to 7, where 1 meant a low impact on trust and 7 would signal a very powerful impact. The stories were designed to either increase trust or decrease trust. Stories to increase trust might say there were no safety problems at the plant last year, employees are carefully trained and selected, managers live near the plant, and the county medical examiner reports that the health of people living near the plant is better than average for the area. Stories to decrease trust included a potential safety problem covered up by plant officials, delayed safety inspections, a plant in another state that had an accident, and the county medical examiner’s report that the health of people living near the plant is overall worse than average for the area. Half of the respondents gave the negative stories a 6 or 7 impact score. By comparison, less than one out of five respondents gave the positive stories a 6 or 7.

The challenge that a company like Boeing or Wells Fargo faces is that it takes a sustained history of right to wipe out one wrong, and it will be judged by people who change their minds more or less easily. To meet this challenge, the company will have to be on the right side of trust again and again.

The first step for managing a trust breach is understanding the kind of trust breach your company has committed. Tolstoy’s famous opening observation in Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike but that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, provides a useful way for leaders of companies to think about the trust problems they create. While each trust betrayal has its own characteristics, breaking them down into types based on the four dimensions on which trust can be built – competence, motives, means, and impact – can provide a path for moving towards a solution. Betrayals on each of these dimensions have different characteristics, and thus apologies and repair strategies will be more or less effective depending on the dimension violated.

Excerpted from The Power of Trust: How Companies Build It, Lose It, Regain It by Sandra J Sucher and Shalene Gupta. Copyright © 2021. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Sandra J Sucher is a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School. Shalene Gupta is a writer, journalist and Research Associate at Harvard Business School.

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