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17 Dec '14

Four keys to restoring trust when it has been broken by leaders

Posted by T.J. Addington
All leaders make mistakes and sometimes those errors in judgement significantly erode their leadership capital - as well as the leadership capital of those around them. I often work with churches where leaders (pastoral or boards) have either neglected issues they should have paid attention to, allowed staff toxicity to exist, made decisions that were widely unpopular, let a staff member go without due process and the list could go on. No leader is exempt from actions, decisions or words that causes a break in trust with those they lead. The question is, how does one restore trust when it has been broken?

The answer is fairly simple but not easy. Not easy because it requires us as leaders to humble ourselves, admit we missed the mark and are willing to make it right. That is a tough thing for a leader to do. We want to be seen as strong and right. And this requires us to admit that we are often weak and wrong. It is a humbling process but without that process trust will not be rebuilt. Nor will we grow. Here are the four keys.

One. We must admit our error - personally. If we screwed up, it is not a secret among those we lead.   No matter what we do in the aftermath of broken trust, unless and until we personally say we were wrong and want to make it right we will not even begin to rebuild trust. I have seen leaders change course in the midst of pressure but until they admit they were wrong (a hard thing to do) they continue to lose points with those they lead. A heartfelt apology, however, goes a long way.

Two. We need to listen to hard feedback. I remember a situation in my own leadership where I had to take responsibility for something that became a mess. Not only did I need to take responsibility but I then had to listen to some hard things from people who were upset by decisions that had been made. These were not easy conversations and I had to listen with a humble heart. What it did, however, was to begin to rebuild trust with people who were extremely unhappy and it made a huge difference. Leaders are not exempt from hearing hard things and until we are willing to do that it is very difficult to rebuild trust.

Three. We need to tell the truth. It can be exceptionally hard for leaders to simply say, "I was wrong," "this is what I was thinking," "this is why I did what I did," and simply explain why they did what they did. All too often in Christian circles we try to spin the story so that we look OK or better than we are. Here is the truth, our people know that we were wrong and they don't buy the spin. In fact, spinning the truth in any way causes us to lose additional points rather than to rebuild trust. Spin may help us to feel better but it erodes rather than rebuilds trust. 

Let's be honest here. Spin is an attempt to protect our reputations but it is both dishonest and untruthful. God is a God of truth, not lies and the sad thing is that when we try to spin we are not only lying to others but to ourselves. We deplore it when it happens in Washington DC and we ought to deplore it when it happens in Christian ministries. The way forward is to be truthful and candid and honest even when it is a humbling experience to us.

Four. When we have messed up we need to take a posture of humility. It is what we teach and preach to others and it applies to us as leaders as well. People respond well to humility and they spot pride a mile away. All three of the previous keys to restoring trust require true humility. There is no other way to restore broken trust. It is a "nothing to prove and nothing to lose" attitude that models what we want other to live. When we are wrong, we need to live that humility ourselves.

Trust can be rebuilt when it is broken but it will not be without these four practices.