4 Ways Organizations Can Restore Their Trust Among Americans After Countless Scandals


Many leaders and organizations have recently declared that it is time for them to “restore trust” that has been lost. A quick Google search show that many institutions want to (or should) rebuild or restore trust: the IRS, banks, trading partners, and our government, including the NSA. In addition, a recent Gallup poll shows that our trust in government “to do what is right, most of the time” is at an all-time low of 19%. 

There is bi-partisan agreement that there is a trust deficit in Washington. Representative Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.), when speaking about the controversy surrounding the Attorney General, Eric Holder, shared her prediction: “I think it will take a generation to rebuild trust in the federal government.” 

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) also stated, “These actions by the IRS are an outrageous abuse of power and a breach of the public’s trust.” He went on to say, “Concerns regarding this shameful abuse of power transcend partisan differences. This should not be dismissed as just another conflict between left and right. It is a conflict between the federal government and the American people.”

Trust is built over time, as a result of the experiences we have with these institutions. If our experience is negative, it reinforces our distrust in them, and based on our research and others, it is exceedingly difficulty to rebuild trust once it has been broken.

If there is so much talk about a “trust deficit” and the need to rebuild trust, where are the steps necessary to take action? It is not easy to rebuild trust, but it is possible. 

Rebuilding trust is a function of how frequently violations have occurred, how much is at stake, and how much emotion is involved.

After more than 20 years studying leaders and organizations who have built trust with employees, customers and colleagues, we know that there are four steps critical to restore broken trust in institutions and leaders:

1. We need to be courageous and open in sharing that our trust has been violated.

- We don’t often have the opportunity to share that our trust has been violated because of differing power relationships or because we might not be an important stakeholder to that leader or institution. 

- We can’t always wait for leaders to what is necessary, and so we need to have the courage to share our disappointments with others who feel the same way, and to confront the leader and/or institution that has violated our trust.

2. These leaders and institutions need to be courageous and humble enough to admit that they have violated our trust. 

- This is a difficult step for leaders and institutions to take. No one wants to appear “weak” so instead of apologizing, so often a leader or organization will acknowledge that someone might have misinterpreted their actions. This is a weak and fearful response. It is more courageous to admit your mistake.

3. Then, they must apologize and quickly ask “What can I do to make this up to you?”

- Apologizing is also seen as weak in our society. Yet, a study of malpractice suits found that if physicians apologize, there is decrease in the number of suits filed, the time and cost of litigation. One advocate noted, “When you talk about disputes in general, whether medical malpractice or business, it’s about a breakdown in communication, a breakdown in trust.”

- It is not just about what they want to do to repair the broken trust, but it is also about what we want them to do to restore our trust in them.

4. If we all agree that trust needs to be restored, then the rebuilding can begin.

- The damage cannot be contained, restored or rebuilt until the victim has given the violator permission to begin the healing process. There has to be a mutual decision to rebuild this relationship.

- The violator then must take purposeful steps to ask what s/he can do to rebuild trust and then follow-up and do it. 

- This process should include open and transparent communication how trust is being rebuilt.

If these leaders and institutions continue to lament their lack of trust and their need to restore it without any real substance behind it, they risk perpetuating the fragile nature of the relationships they have with their constituents.  If they want to make real progress, then they will have to do the hard work.

Karen and Aneil Mishra are business school professors and authors of Becoming a Trustworthy Leader (2012).