Trust and Guarantees

I’ve been working with a group where the level of trust is very low. During a session with this group, the leader of the group asked everyone else if they were willing to work with him. One person responded with, in effect, “If you can guarantee me that you won’t repeat the behavior that caused me to lose trust in you in the first place, then I’ll work with you.”

Translation: if you take away the risk, then I will trust you.

Sorry, folks, trust doesn’t work that way. If there are guarantees, then it is not trust. By definition, trust involves taking a risk, exposing yourself to vulnerability. You are exposing yourself and you are trusting that the other person won’t take advantage of that vulnerability.

In situations where trust has been broken, you are still stinging from the last time you took the risk and got burned. So you go into the conversation looking to make some sort of new deal that protects you against feeling that pain in the future. This deal where you will eliminate your risk is an illusion.

You do need a new deal, of course. Ignoring your pain and trying to just tough it out with the other person rarely works. The lack of trust will make even the most basic functioning of the group impossible. But the new deal isn’t about guaranteeing anything. It is just about clarity.

You and the other person need to get very clear about:

  • Impact of past behavior
  • Intentions behind the past behavior
  • Expectations about future behavior (ground rules)
  • Process for addressing trust breaches or ground rule violations in the future

This does not guarantee anything, and it does not remove risk. The other person could still violate the ground rules or your expectations in the future. But if you are clear (and you’ve done any work around forgiveness that is needed), then you are in a better position to start to rebuild the trust.


  1. 17.04.2007 at 10:00 am

    Your comment also is a great illustration of why it’s so important to not violate people’s trust in the first place, if it can possibly be avoided. That “sting” continues to reverberate and affect you and your association for years.
    For instance, say someone tried an innovative new approach to a program and it failed, despite all appropriate effort and due diligence. But instead of being supported for taking a risk, she was castigated for failing. She may be less likely to take risks in the future, which is a loss for her and for any future programs where she works.

  2. 20.04.2007 at 5:40 am

    Well, yes it’s a good idea to not violate trust, but the length of the sting depends on the organizational culture. Specifically, what do you do when trust is violated? What does that woman do after she was castigated for failing? IN that culture, can she schedule a meeting with the boss and talk about the castigation and express her frustration with not being supported in the risk? If so, there is a possibility (not a guarantee) that she could move through this experience and risk again. But having trust violated and never talking about it is definitely a recipe for disaster.