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CONTRIBUTOR / Cecily Cooper


Can trust be rebuilt after it’s broken? That’s a question we are confronted with both in our personal and professional lives. To answer that requires further questions, such as: Was the trust breach related to a lack of competence or to a lack of integrity? Are the attempts at redemption strictly verbal, or are there action-oriented efforts backing up a verbal apology? Cooper discusses research findings that shed light on the issue of broken trust, emphasizing that violation type, more than anything else, is what determines the likelihood of repairing trust.


Organizational behavior scholars study trust repair because it’s really important to understand how to maintain trust in organizations.

Trust is a driver of many key outcomes, such as employee job performance, helping behaviors, and job attitudes.

Trust also enables the coordination and the cooperation that’s necessary to achieve both day-to-day tasks and long-term challenging goals.

The problem, however, is that trust is also very fragile and easily broken, and thus the need for its repair.

When talking about interpersonal trust repair, we’re focusing on two parties: One is the trustee, and the trustee is the transgressor. And the other is the trustor. The trustor is the focus of the repair efforts.

But what we find is that there’s no one best approach for repairing trust; it depends on the type of violation.

Bumper: How the Impact of an Apology Depends on the Dimension of Trust

And research has found a really useful distinction in comparing competence- versus integrity-related violations of trust.

So, competence and integrity are two of the three dimensions of trustworthiness.

And when we look at attribution theory, the schematic model of dispositional attribution explains to us that people interpret information about integrity and competence very differently.

And what happens is that people anchor on negative signals of integrity more so than positive and positive signals of competence more so than negative.

So, if you embezzle funds from a bank but then act in a trustworthy manner later on, people still are not likely to trust you, because they see that one indication of you stealing as being very diagnostic of who you really are.

But when it comes to competence—and I’ll use a baseball analogy here—if you hit a home run, people see you as being a home-run hitter even if you strike out afterwards.

So, people see competence-related issues as being much more changeable, whereas integrity-related issues are much more stable and enduring.

Because of this, research finds that apologies can be very effective for overcoming competence-related violations because they communicate redemption.

But apologies are not effective for overcoming integrity-related violations because they also acknowledge guilt.

And that acknowledgment of guilt is very damaging because, again, people see these integrity-related issues as being relatively stable and enduring.

Bumper: Two Categories for Trust Repair Tactics

So, what tactics can be used to repair trust? Well, for simplicity’s sake, we can think of them as falling into two categories: verbal responses and substantive responses.

And verbal responses include things such as excuses, promises, denial, different types of apologies.

And for substantive responses, research has examined acts of penance (that means taking on a personal cost), reparations (that’s paying damages to the person who was harmed), or monitoring systems (imposing a monitoring system on the person who violated trust so that they can’t transgress again).

But we can’t say that either verbal or substantive responses are more effective; it really depends on how they’re offered and under what circumstances.

The important thing is that when the response is offered, it has to signal that the person has really repented, that they are trying to change who they are. Perceived repentance is key.

The second issue is that if deception was involved, people are not likely to believe verbal responses, because they feel that if they were deceived one time, that the verbal responses are probably just mere talk.

Research also gives some indication that over time, actions might be weighted more heavily than words—so, actions might be more important than words.

An interesting caveat, though, is that research also finds that larger substantive acts are not necessarily more effective than smaller ones.

So, specifically, research that’s looked at reparations, for example—giving money to the person that was harmed—has found that a lot of times, smaller amounts of money are just as effective as larger amounts.

And again, this goes back to the importance of signaling that you’ve repented.

And so, if that small amount of money gives just as strong a signal that you’ve repented as the larger amount, then there’s actually no added benefit to giving extra amounts of money, which is pretty interesting.

But the final thing to remember is, though, that signaling repentance through either verbal or substantive responses will be much more effective after a competence-related violation rather than integrity-related violation. So, again, violation type is key.

Trust repair is still a relatively new area of study under the larger umbrella of trust research. And repair scholars are still trying to identify which responses are most effective for repairing trust and under what conditions.