As the saying goes, ‘trust is earned by the penny, but spent by the dollar.’ In other words, while trust is constructed through countless transactions, it can be shattered with only one negative interaction. Even an inadvertent betrayal of trust can wipe out an entire account. While it is easy to understand why organizations require high levels of trust to operate effectively (imagine trying to delegate or collaborate without it!) it’s less clear how to re-establish trust when it has been violated. For some reason, kids have this trust thing better figured out than we adults. When my daughter Mara was a child, like most kids she’d struggle with even her best friends over what I considered less than momentous issues – who went first in a game, who’s toy or doll was better, who called who a bad word, and so on. She would come home red-faced, and expressive: “I hate so and so,” “I’ll never play with her again,” “she’s so selfish.”  As an empathetic parent, I’d try to console her. As a developmental parent, I’d ask how she contributed to the conflict (that didn’t get me far – when she was nine she once yelled at me, “I am not your client!”). As a curious parent, I’d wonder what would happen next. After all, she went to a small private school and didn’t have many playmates to choose from. Invariably the next day she’d come home and I’d ask how it went (caring parent). She would look at me blankly and ask, “How did what go?” I’d remind her of the drama and trauma of the previous day, and she’d just say, “oh that, that was nothing, we’re best friends,” and run upstairs jaunty and bouncy, while I stood at the foot of the staircase incensed that this MAJOR ISSUE was nothing — poof, just wiped off the screen.  This high-speed sequence of hurt and forgiveness happened more times than I can remember. Even as a teenager, with the stakes seemingly higher (at least with the amplitude of drama higher) Mara navigated through various cliques and coalitions like a pinball. One day being excluded from a party bruised her feelings. Another day a friend ‘stealing’ another friend devastated her. And another day she felt dejected by someone acting ‘weird.’ But for some reason, she never lost any friends. Perhaps for a day or two, but they all cycled back into her ‘circle of trust’ very quickly compared to we ‘adults’ who hold grudges as long as the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s. Reflecting on my own limitations to ‘forgive and forget,’ as well as working in client systems where trust seems so easily lost and seldom recovered, I recently asked Mara the secret to forgiveness and rebuilding trust so quickly. Again she looked at me blankly and claimed she didn’t know what I was talking about. But when confronted with a few highlights from her illustrious past, she remembered some examples and finally gave in and shared her wisdom:

  • “When I was a kid I was upset with my friend for calling me a wimp because I was scared to go into the big waves at the beach. At first I got very quiet and didn’t talk to her. Then I thought to myself, what’s the big deal? She probably didn’t mean to hurt my feelings; she was just trying to be a big shot. I went back to my normal self and it didn’t affect our relationship.”
  • “I get jealous sometimes when I’m excluded because I get upset when I miss stuff. At first I show it by just giving one-word answers without feelings. But then I acknowledge to myself that it felt bad. When I realize my feelings I think: it’s not worth losing a friendship over one thing.”
  • “I don’t want an apology but it would be feel good if they realized that they did something wrong, though that’s not the most important thing. I’d rather be mad for a day, get over it, and realize we are still friends. I realize that I do bad things sometimes too.”

These lessons apply to all of us who are striving to build or rebuild trust in organizations:

  1. Acknowledge personal feelings of hurt
  2. See the situation from the other person’s perspective
  3. Realize the other person isn’t usually motivated to hurt us, but is trying to preserve their own self-esteem
  4. Take a long term perspective of relationships
  5. Don’t seek out apologies or be upset when you don’t get them
  6. Cut others and yourself some slack – none of us is perfect

Reflecting on my daughter’s wisdom, two observations stand out: First, the power of forgiveness lies in its simplicity. And second, this ain’t kid’s stuff! © Robert Ponzoni -ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2008