How to Repair Broken Trust: An Organizational Behavior Perspective


Contributor / Cecily Cooper

Associate Professor of Management
University of Miami School of Business Administration / Organizational Behavior

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.

Related Videos

Four Strategies to Increase Trust across Your Organization

Contributor / Cecily Cooper
Cecily Cooper Organizational Behavior Leadership,Vulnerability,Communication Well, trust and leadership has been shown time and time again to relate to many key outcomes, such as employee job performance, helping behaviors, and job attitudes.

So, as a senior leader, you want to do anything that you can to increase trust in leadership across levels of the organization.

Now, one of the first key things that you can do is make sure that you treat your employees fairly because fairness engenders trust.

So, if employees feel that they’re being paid fairly, that decisions are made in a consistent and unbiased fashion, and that they’re treated with dignity and respect, then chances are they’re going to trust you.

Now, on the other hand, if you hear employees complaining that things are just not fair, then chances are they don’t trust you. And so, that’s one key thing to remember.

Second, you have to make sure that your words and your actions are aligned—so, there has to be consistency between what you say and what you do.

Third, transparency is really important. And by transparency, I mean that you need to communicate as openly and frequently as possible with employees and also give them as much information as possible.

And the last thing that I would like to mention, and this is a little different because most research on trust has been looking at employees trusting their leaders and why that’s important for so many reasons, but now we also know that it’s really important that employees feel trusted, that employees feel that their leaders trust them.

And since trust is a reciprocal process, if the employees feel that the leaders trust them, they’re also more likely to trust their leaders.

So, then the next question is, but how can a manager signal that they trust their employees? There’s a lot of different things that they can do.

They can give their employees more responsibility, more autonomy; don’t micromanage, don’t monitor—overly monitory—your employees.

And if there are positions that need to be filled in the organization, promote from within; don’t hire externally.

Bumper: Understanding How a Trust Breach Is a Matter of Perspective

If you’re a leader and you’re accused of something, there are two questions that you should consider.

The first is, are you actually guilty?—because if you’re not guilty, then it benefits you to deny as quickly as possible, and also, if there is any exonerating evidence, to also offer that evidence to support your denial.

But what if you actually are guilty? Well, there’s a second important question.

And that is, was the transgression (that is, what you’re guilty of doing) a result of a lapse in competence versus integrity?—because research tells us that integrity-related issues are much more difficult to overcome than competence-related issues.

But at the same time, perception of the specific event can be malleable.

For example, if you just made an honest mistake or you did not have adequate knowledge and that’s why you didn’t prepare the tax return correctly, that’s a very different issue in other people’s minds than if you were trying to misrepresent the taxes.

Bumper: How “No Comment” Elicits Distrust

You don’t want to remain reticent on the issue; in other words, it’s really risky to not respond.

The problem is that even if people just hear an accusation, they’re likely to passively believe it unless they’re given a reason not to.

But the tricky thing for leaders is there could be a lot of reasons that they don’t want to respond. So, there could be legal reasons that they should not respond, or if they respond, they know that they might implicate a third party.

And so, for a lot of these reasons, you will see people delay responding or say, “No comment”—which is very frequently used.

Now, the intention might be to get people to delay judgment for a while. But what research shows is that instead of delaying judgment, people actually are more prone to make judgments and come to the worst possible conclusions.

By remaining silent on the issue, you’re not doing anything to mitigate this accusation of guilt by denying, and you’re not apologizing, so you’re not expressing any remorse.

And so, what happens is then people will think that you are in fact guilty, and you’re also not remorseful.

How We Understand Trust in Romantic Relationships: Key Findings

Contributor / Eli Finkel
Eli Finkel Relationships Trust Formation,Definitions,Breaches If we’re focusing on the modern relationship signs of trust, the best place to start is probably with John Bowlby’s seminal monograph on attachment theory.

In this monograph, published in 1969, Bowlby observes that when we’re infants, we are extremely dependent on our caregivers for sensitive support.

If our parents provide us with sensitive support, we tend to conclude that we ourselves are worthy of love and that our significant others can be trusted. If we’re not treated with sensitive support, we draw just the opposite conclusions.

To an extent, we carry these lessons with us throughout the rest of our lives.

Three Dimensions of Trust in Romantic Relationships

The first major theoretical and empirical piece laying out the framework for understanding trust in romantic relationships was Rempel, Holmes, and Zanna’s 1985 paper.

Rempel and colleagues argued that there are three dimensions underlying trust, and they built a self-report instrument to assess each of these three dimensions.

The first dimension is predictability, and they assess it with items like “I am familiar with the patterns of behavior my partner has established, and I can rely on him or her to behave in certain ways.”

The second dimension is dependability, which they assess with items like “I can count on my partner to be concerned about my welfare.”

The third dimension is faith, which they assess with items like “Though times may change and the future is uncertain, I know my partner will always be ready and willing to offer me strength and support.”

The reason why faith is so crucial is that we can never know what situations we’re going to face—whether our partner might encounter some temptation or whether circumstances might get difficult financially and so forth.

And so, it’s really when we have faith in the partner that we’re willing to take this flying leap and make ourselves vulnerable despite all of that uncertainty about the future.

Importance of Diagnostic Situations

Four years later, John Holmes and John Rempel published another piece, a chapter that really served as the first major theory of trust in romantic relationships.

Perhaps the most important thing that it did was it introduced the idea of the diagnostic situation.

If we watch our partner behave nicely to us in a way that happens to be what he or she would like to do anyway, it’s not diagnostic about whether we can trust our partner, whether he’s behaving in a way that warrants us developing faith in him or her.

It’s really when we see situations where the partner is willing to make a sacrifice for us that we can then conclude that we are safe depending upon our partner, that we in fact trust our partner.

Whitewashing the Past Enhances Trust

One of the major ways in which our level of trust in our partner influences our lives is that it biases our memories in ways that benefit our relationship.

In a project that we spearheaded here at Northwestern, we were interested in how trust can bias people’s memories of actual relationship events.

Building on the idea that trust is ultimately a leap of faith, a determination that we can rely on our partner in the future, we explored the idea that trust makes us misremember our partner’s transgressions in a way that makes them seem more benign than they really were.

We conducted four longitudinal studies where we had people record in real time each instance in which their partner did something that hurt or offended them.

What this method allowed us to do is to compare the extent to which they felt hurt and angry at the time with their memory two weeks, four weeks, eight weeks later about how much they thought they were hurt at the time.

What was interesting in these results is that the extent to which we trust our partner predicts our misremembering of the past in a way that makes us more fulfilled in our relationship.

"To be clear, this isn’t forgiveness in the sense that you say, “Well, I’m not as upset as I used to be”; this is a whitewashing of the past. You are in fact misremembering your own personal experience about how you felt at the time of the event.

And it is precisely this whitewashing that helps trust make our relationship as strong as possible.
Col. O'Grady uses the trust equation to combat a crisis in Afghanistan.

Establishing Trust in Your Organization: What an Army Colonel Learned on the Ground

Contributor / Col. John A. O’Grady
Col. John A. O'Grady Government Breaches,Definitions,Government,Reciprocity,Regulation,Reputation Management In the organization in which I am in, the word trust gets thrown around a lot. And in that regard I started to find myself getting very frustrated by constantly getting hit with the word trust and then no one really then explaining what that meant.

We decided to unpack trust and really think about what that meant to us as a group, and it did a couple of things. It raised a level of awareness and it provided a common framework from which we could all then understand trust.

So the trust equation is really just that, it’s a word equation. So trust equals integrity or honesty plus reliability or dependability, plus competence, plus communication, plus genuine care.

So in crisis management, the trust principles are a great tool to first analyze what areas of trust have been most affected. And then it allows you to – once you’ve done that – apply individual and organizational energy most effectively at those areas first to start to re-establish trust.

BUMPER: Theory to Practice: Principles of Trust in a Crisis Situation

So there was a pretty critical moment in Afghanistan where the local governor of the province that I was in did not show up at an event that had a lot of work leading up to it to even bring to fruition. Multiple constituencies were attending this event and it was going to be a formal acknowledgement of a deal to bring on local militia. Everybody is there and the governor does not show up. The whole thing pretty much falls apart along with all the work that had gone to bring us to that moment.

In my next meeting with him a week later I said, “Hey look, by not showing up, your integrity…people think you’re a liar now. You weren’t reliable on being where you said you were going to be.” In talking to him about that he was concerned because ultimately his driver went the wrong way and he was in the back of the car not really paying attention. Communications aren’t good and so we had no way to just pick up the phone and be like, “Hey, we’re going to be a half-hour late” type of thing. And so everybody left, he never showed up and that was really the reason, and he was ashamed a little bit because he thought his competence and that of his driver would come into question. And he’s the governor; he’s supposed to know where everything is. What do you mean you don’t know how to get to a town in your province? It’s not that uncommon in that area. It’s not easy.

BUMPER: Establishing Trust Through Honesty and Genuine Care

So we used that to frame that discussion and then what I was able to do to present to him a way forward was bring again into light the kind of equation, and say, well I understand your concern that your competence is called into question, but by not addressing this and just taking it kind of in one area of competence which is really not as big a deal as maybe you think it is, we’re affecting the integrity, genuine care, dependability, reliability. So you have a choice here.

So in that situation with the governor it was also an opportunity for both he and I to use parts of that trust equation as well and demonstrate to each other that we were willing to be honest with each other. He didn’t have to share with me that bit about the competency. You know I could demonstrate to him that, hey, I genuinely care about what’s going on here, man. I genuinely care about how you’re viewed.

We ultimately ended up establishing trust with each other and moving the trust peg in the right way using those different components of the equation.

The net result was then to take this meeting that had completely collapsed and a month or two later re-establish that meeting and bring to fruition the security forces in that area that had a very positive effect in a local…a very localized way. So it was a win, really, in a number of different areas with a number of different constituencies starting with me to him, and then larger [win for] us [and] the populous through the security forces.

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Pages in The Trust Project at Northwestern University