Building and Repairing Trust

Roy Lewicki

Professor of Management and Human Resources at Ohio State University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: Almost all of what the practitioners are called upon to do periodically is build trust or create trust among other parties. There is really very little explicit step-wise, kind of "here's how you do it." We just sort of say something like "build trust" and assume that everyone knows what that means. Admittedly, we are not going to get a formula for each and every situation. That's an area where we've got a lot of work to do. Repairing broken trust is much tougher to do than I think we give it credit for. Once violated what does it take to get parties back from the table? Does time heal all wounds? Can you fix that? How do you do that?

Q: What can you say about building trust and secondly building broken trust?

A: That is a couple of levels and again I don't have all my notes in front of me. A couple of things that we would point out would be that trust and distrust should be treated separately. I think there are things you can do to build trust, which is different from managing distrust or trying to keep distrust under control. Second thing I would say is that some of the most clear-cut actions about building trust are pretty straightforward. This is in terms of people being reliable, that is they will do what they say will do. They are acting predictably, keeping one's word, showing that you are competent and can do the job. Those are pretty straightforward in trying to bring parties back together in a more arms length contractual sense. That is what building trust takes. Rebuilding trust is an area that we are just working on now. We are looking at things like how important are apologies? How important is some kind of reparation in the communication? How much is it in what I say or how much is it in what I do that really reflects sincerity and instrumental? When violations are not very severe it is a lot easier than when the consequences have been severe. The severity of the offense has a dramatic and a quite misunderstood kind of impact. When the violation has been severe, it may not be repairable. The party may have decided that they may never be able to trust you again. Whatever breach has occurred has set up the idea that there is no way they will ever believe you again. Then you have to try and understand where the line is and how you define what the severity of the offense means. It has been tricky to do but a fun project to work on. The last thing that I would say is that I think there is another kind of trust which is less rooted in transactions and much more rooted in the degree to which you and I see each other as sharing the same fate, the same identity, the same common goals, the same vision, the same purpose in life that our value systems are congruent. I just know right away that you and I are in alignment. It is not contractual or transactional. It is a real identification base of trust. We are trying to understand how that works.