You’ve lost your supervisor’s trust. Now what? That pit in your stomach likely stems from the uncomfortable realization that your status and chances for advancement have taken a sudden and unwelcome hit. After all, trustworthiness is the currency of most workplaces. It allows you to build productive relationships and to earn greater responsibility. Without it, you’re unlikely to succeed.
The first step in solving this dilemma is to discern whether the unfortunate event called your integrity or your competence into question. As I describe in my book, The Truth About Trust, our willingness to rely on others rests on these two distinct pillars. Integrity — the willingness to act fairly and honor commitments — is what usually comes to mind first when we think about trust. Yet competence — the possession of skills required to complete a task — is no less important. While it’s clear that we’ll avoid working with someone whose integrity we doubt, all the integrity in the world won’t be much help if a partner lacks the skills required to accomplish the task at hand.
As a result, successful managers are quite sensitive to these two factors and weigh them in assigning responsibilities. Ever wonder why the seemingly most honest and earnest members of a team are often overlooked for promotion in favor of less personable, but perhaps more skilled people? Top decision makers rightly recognize that the benefits of integrity and niceness begin to top out at a certain level, whereas the benefits of increasing competence usually show no similar leveling.
Earning your boss’s trust, then, depends on convincing your superiors that you possess the right balance of integrity and competence.
To do so, recognize which pillar of your perceived trustworthiness needs shoring up. Does your boss believe that you prioritize your own needs over those of the company? Or does she suspect that you you simply don’t possess the necessary skills or abilities?
If it’s integrity, you’re in luck, because this is often an easier fix. Consider how the mind calculates character. Integrity is a willingness to accept short-term costs to yourself for the benefit of others. Yes, not paying back a favor can lead to more resources in the short-run, but in the long-run, developing a reputation as someone who is selfish or dishonest will significantly reduce benefits that, when aggregated over time, could be quite substantial. Since being trustworthy, then, rests on sacrificing short-term gain for long-term gain, having integrity requires been seen as having self-control (as work by Francesca Righetti and Catrin Finkenauer confirms). But how do you show self-control and integrity? There are two ways.
The first takes time: repeatedly demonstrate an ability to delay selfish gratification for small temptations. For example, work through lunch or take on onerous or tedious tasks that need to get done but no one else wants to do. The second is quicker: show a willingness to sacrifice to benefit others when the stakes are high. The power of the second path is well known. Brothers- or sisters-in-arms build strong bonds of trust by assisting each other even when doing so puts their own lives on the line. Teams build trust by engaging in off-site retreats that test their cooperative inclinations through participation in demanding tasks. In both cases, the price of accepting immediate costs to oneself are high, and therefore, doing so clearly marks an individual as a trustworthy team player. To regain others’ trust, then, you must quickly behave in ways that show you’re willing to sacrifice your own needs and pleasures to benefit others, and to do so in situations characterized by fairly high personal costs in terms of time, money, or related resources. You have to be seen as willing to do what others might not in service of the company’s larger goals. For example, put off a planned vacation to meet a major need or goal of your boss.
If your competence is in question, be prepared for a longer slog. Competence isn’t based on motivations, and therefore can’t be altered as readily. Put simply, competence is skill-based, and if your manager doesn’t believe you possess skills you ought to have, it will take much effort to remedy. When it comes to trust, issues of competence are so central that our minds are already sensitive to them by the age of four. As research by Kathleen Corriveau and Paul Harris has revealed, preschoolers prefer competence to likability when it comes to selecting the teachers from whom they wish to learn and with whom they wish to work. It’s a bias that stays with us into adulthood. As a result, being seen as incompetent puts you at a significant disadvantage; others will gravitate away from working with you on tasks that require joint efforts. Fixing the situation will require some level of humility on your part, as trying to project confidence after an initial failure will only exacerbate the problem by making you appear hubristic. You will need to be seen as working to hone your skills — doing extra reading, taking additional classes, etc. — in order to be trusted again. Don’t rush it. Rather, make sure that when your input is sought, you give the right answers, even if that requires asking for more time to come up with them.
You might be wondering if these efforts are worth it. Can people truly bounce back from a broken trust with their boss? In most cases, the answer is yes. Ample research has shown that an inclination to forgive breaches of trust (as least when they occur rarely) is a more beneficial strategy than one based on a simple tit-for-tat tactic. Why? Because many breaches of trust end up being mistakes. For example, a person fails to complete an assignment because he mixed up due dates, not because he chose to leave work early for a party. If individuals adopted a true tit-for-tat strategy, relationships where trust was mistakenly broken could never be repaired. The individuals in question enter a death spiral of noncooperation. But if people are willing to forgive transgressions now and again, potentially beneficial relationships need not be confined to the junk heap. Accordingly, most people, whether they consciously know it or not, have a tendency to forgive — a tendency to be open to repairing trust. Following the steps above will help increase the likelihood that you’ll be able to use that tendency to your advantage, and ultimately find yourself back in your boss’s good graces.