Re-establishing trust requires an apology

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 7, 2007
Filed in Collaboration

Everyone in knowledge management acknowledges the vital role trust plays. “Trust is the bandwidth of communication” says Karl-Erik Sveiby. When talking about trust I mostly hear people say “we need to build trust”. But I rarely hear people discuss the issue of what to do when trust is broken and needs to be rebuilt. See below for a process for rebuilding trust. At the core is an apology.

I was reminded of this issue by a post by Seth Godin where he lists 10 apologies from the weakest to the strongest.

  • “You can always take your business elsewhere.” (1): Thank you, I will, and so will all of my friends.
  • “It’s not our fault.” (2): This is a non-apology, where you are not seeking to redress the issue, nor evincing any sort of sympathy for the injured.
  • “We’re sorry that you feel that way.” (3): This is also a non-apology, which roughly translates into “It pisses us off that you feel that way. If you didn’t feel that way, we would be happy.” It also doesn’t take any responsibility for the problem, and places all of it onto the injured party. Be careful of any apology that starts “I’m sorry that you…”
  • “We’re sorry if we did something wrong.” (6): This is getting there, but doesn’t really accept responsibility either. You are not acknowledging that you did anything wrong; you’re still hoping that you haven’t. You are offering an apology for appearances sake.
  • “We’re sorry that this occurred.” (7): You are sorry, but as a matter of principle you’re still trying to insist that it wasn’t really your fault.
  • “We’re sorry that we caused this problem.” or “We’re sorry that we have let this happen.” (9): This is a full apology, and is what the customer needs to hear. Frankly, it doesn’t matter that it was really the post office’s fault, and not yours; the customer doesn’t care. Most people hearing this cannot help but respond with some sort of graciousness, such as “Well, all right then, these things happen. What are you going to do to fix it?” This is the target level that you want to hit for your customer service. But for the record, there is still one level to go. The complete apology is:
  • “We’re so sorry that we caused this problem; we are really distressed over this. Please know that we take this very seriously. This is a huge oversight on our part. I will immediately notify my supervisor, and we will review our procedures to ensure that this cannot happen again. In the meantime, that is no consolation to you for our lack of service! What can we do to regain your trust? We will be sending you a little surprise as a token of our appreciation of having you as a customer.” (10) In truth, this little speech goes on until the customer interrupts. And it is followed by a few more apologies as the conversation closes, as well.

In my search for ways to help organisations rebuild trust in groups, I discovered this interesting paper and process which came from work in reconciliation in South Africa. The author suggests a five step process in rebuilding trust. The process requires actions on both sides of the relationship: from the violator of the trust and the victim (this is language from the source material).

Actions of the Violator

  • They must engage in a series of steps that identify, acknowledge, and assume some ‘ownership’ for the trust destroying events that occurred.
    • recognise and acknowledge that a violation has occurred
    • determine the nature of the violation—that is, what ‘caused’ it—and admit that one has caused the event
    • admit that the act was destructive
    • accept responsibility for the effect of one’s actions

This very much looks likes apology 10 above.

Actions of the Victim

  • The victim to request (or the violator to offer) some form of forgiveness, atonement, or action designed to undo the violation and rebuild the trust

Lindskold, S. (1978). “Trust development, the GRIT proposal, and the affects of conciliatory acts on conflict and cooperation.” Psychological Bulletin 85: 772-793.


About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. There’s truth to the old saying that a single mistake can offset 1000 “attaboys”. The willingness to forgive and time it may take is a direct function of the PERCEIVED depth of the offense. Little ones – no problem. Big ones – it takes a major effort on the part of the offender.
    The problem with customer service reps is they don’t see their customers in terms of the actual relationship they have with their organizations. That relationship is the key to their own growth, and is worth what it takes to keep!

  2. Andy Bell says:

    Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life by Fernando Flores and Robert Solomon may be of interest. They distinguish between the different bases on which trust is established. They also explore rebuilding trust in some detail looking at this as a movement from simple trust to authentic trust (which involves the choice to trust while also having an awareness of the possibility of betrayal).

  3. Thanks Robert and Andy for your comments. I have read Flores’ book–excellent–thanks for the reminder.
    What do you think are common betrayals in blogs and blogging? I know, for example, that I have said I will write on a particular topic and then have not quite had the inspiration to write those posts. This is a type of betrayal which I’m sorry.

  4. Within the customer provider dynamic this is a great evolution from the worst to the best. As you move down the list it certainly begins to bring down the divide and aligns the provider with the customer’s expectation. Ultimately though, number 10 still keeps the divide by appealing to simple trust.

    Blogs are more collegial in nature and betrayals in that context require more understanding by both the writer and reader. A more authentic and transparent exchange–remove the natural divide between provider and consumer. 🙂

  5. You make a good point Nick. I wonder what blog practices you can adopt to reduce the divide even further.

  6. Andy Bell says:

    I agree with Nick’s comment on the nature of trust in blogs/blogging. How would one re-negotiate commitments in a one to (potentially) many environment? Hmmm…
    The more grating form of betrayal for me comes in the form of conscious deception for the purpose of marketing versus an authentic engagement/offering (which may be for the same purpose). The transparency Nick mentioned above is missing.

  7. I’m new to the blogosphere and the conscious deception for marketing purposes that Andy is referring to is disheartening.
    A little over year ago I created a healthcare PI wiki. Wikis certainly remove the divide–allowing content to be consensus driven between participants. The wiki experience, however, has been a frustrating endeavor with little success. A wiki presents other trust challenges, namely integrity–quality content is difficult to foster. A wiki also stymies story telling in favor of information, furthering the misuse of the hive mind as a resource for information rather than inspiration.
    Blogs are the opinion leaders in the hive mind and inspirational. The question about how to reduce the divide on blogs is a really interesting one. As opinion leaders we have a responsibility keep commitments or risk undermining the trust supporting loyal readers. Consumers of blogs are collaborative partners and honesty should be encouraged to flow both ways. If the opinion leader breaks a commitment, the readers have a responsibility to take the leader to task. The ease for a bloger to publish thoughts can lead to a stream of impulse. Impulsive leaders are at high risk of loosing trust. It’s important that we do not pull our collaborators along with impulseive promises that may fade or get lost over time. A standard of thoughtful and thought provoking posts is important.
    Setting the right tone goes a long way to bring down the divide. Blogers can be mistakenly seen as egotistical. Collaborative tones and encouragement is important to level the relationship between author and reader—hopefully resulting in an honest and active dialogue.
    So I guess the answer to the question resides in the stewardship of blogs. Setting a collaborative tone to encourage honest feedback and standards of thoughtfulness to reduce impulse.
    As I said I’m still new to bloging and have a lot to learn about the culture and expectations. Shawn, this is a great blog, very valuable and inspirational…thanks!

  8. I think it is important for blog readers to be skeptical. It’s healthy and especially important for commercial blogs like this one. But I have to say that the main reason I blog is to keep my own ideas flowing. I find that the more ideas I write down the more ideas I have. And as a result I’m guilty of the impulsive response Nick suggests we should avoid.
    I haven’t been that good at fostering a conversation in this blog so far but I would like that to happen. Many times I have asked for feedback but rarely receive it in a comment. I wonder if a direct request is off-putting?
    Thanks Andy and Nick for your thoughtful comments and helping to keep the conversation going. Both of you last comments I will return to periodically to ensure I keep grounded.

  9. Shawn, I apologize for making this discussion long…no need to reply. Your last comment revealed something that I suppose I have been struggling with. Using a blog to keep ideas flowing seems the best use, after all they are web logs. And now that I think about it the best blogs seem to be the most impulsive. I have only started to blog and have just begun to dip my toes into knowledge management. I lack expertise but have been finding the subject matter very interesting. As a result it has been difficult for me to have a more continuous dialogue for dialogues sake. I believe I’m robbing myself from the rich learning process a blog can provide its author as you just pointed out–I retract my statement about impulsive stewardship. It seems the most value for reader and author may come from the impulsive content.

    I wanted to thank you for this dialogue it has helped me gain a better understanding learn more about the bloging process and I can certainly appreciate your question of how to bring down the divide…it’s a tricky one!

  10. Daniel Goodburn says:

    I think the “violator”/”victim” distinction can limit our understanding of the conflict.

    What if the breakdown in trust is apparently caused by an incident that is being interpreted by the different parties in different ways. For the “violator”, the incident had little consequence and was perfectly innocent (and let’s assume that this is really the case – there was no sinister intent and the incident was a perfectly innocent, understandable occurrence), while for the “victim”, the incident is viewed as an extreme violation.

    Now who apologises to who? The “violator”, for whom the incident was completely innocent, and who now stands accused of an extreme violation, and quite rightly will feel aggrieved at the accusation? Or the “victim”, who felt justified in making the accusation of violation?

    Now, it seems to me that it could be that the “violator” could be as much the “victim” of the incident, as the “victim’s” accusation could be based on an assumption of sinister intent. This assumption of sinister intent is a violation of trust that then leads to the accusation.

    So what caused the breakdown in trust. The incident in question? Or was there no trust in the first place, only an assumption of trust that this incident has now highlighted?

    And who is the aggrieved party? The “victim”, who, based on his lack of trust, has misinterpreted the “violator’s” intentions, or attributed intentions that weren’t present, and made a hurtful accusation? Or the “violator”, who while acting in good faith has been accused of wrongdoing based on assumptions of intent that did not exist and perhaps are unreasonably attributed?

    Mary Parker Follett has some interesting things to say about conflict which may be worth referring to here. She might have suggested that, rather than label people as “victim” and “violator”, one should simply say, “We have a conflict here, and this conflict is the result of different perspectives. Let us take advantage of this conflict as an opportunity to explore and try to understand these different perspectives and learn something about each other and ourselves. Then perhaps we can work out how we can move on together.”

    Sometimes, it just isn’t clear who the victim or violator is, and using these labels could just make resolution harder to achieve.

  11. Excellent points Daniel and I have to say I’m much more comfortable eshewing the concept of victim and violator, which never sat well with me.

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