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: