Is it possible to repair trust?

In recent times our trust in leaders, private and public organisations, and key institutions has been shaken by a wave of scandals. Surveys that measure trust indicate we are becoming more sceptical and distrusting of business, government, churches, and trade unions.

An erosion of trust is problematic as the function of society depends on us having a degree of faith in our leaders and institutions. There are differences in opinion as to how widespread this erosion is, with some commentators outlining that mistrust is an appropriate response to untrustworthiness and that one main issue with trust isn’t that the public doesn’t trust organisations, rather it is that organisations fail to trust the public.

Perhaps an important question to consider on the topic of trust is what can be done to restore it? An article in the Journal of Organisational Studies (September 2015; vol. 36, 9: pp. 1123-1142) sets out a framework with six mechanisms that can be used for “trust repair”. One or two of these measures may not be enough on its own, however a strategic combination can go some way to the restoration of trust over time.

Helping the public to make sense of what has happened.

This involves running a process that offers a “comprehensive, credible and sincere explanation of what happened and why”. A sense making process assists as a healing process. Often it takes the form of an inquiry or perhaps a Royal Commission. However, conducting a sense making process is not without its issues. It is often difficult and fraught with complications. Any sense making process is challenged by the divergent views of stakeholders as to what happened, how it happened, and who was responsible. Sometimes in the effort of trying to make sense, more stories involving abuse of trust are revealed. Another problem is scapegoating where the blame is slated on to some prominent individuals but leaves the underlying systemic issues in place.

Relational healing

When trust is breached there’s a strong need for those who have suffered a violation of trust to be able to redress the social and emotional balance to the relationship. Proper and sincere apologies (not the ‘sort of ‘ ones that we often see tried) and compensation help relational healing.

Regulation and formal control

This involves making use of mechanisms that impose regulations and controls on the offender. External actors such as governments often impose regulations. Rather than wait, or rely on external regulation, an organisation or an industry can pro-actively impose regulation on itself. This involves voluntarily implementing internal rules and strict measures of control. This can send a message that there’s a strong desire to put the house in order as a means of repairing trust.

Ethical culture and informal controls

This involves actively working to build a strong ethical culture using a variety of measures such as discussing ethics within the organisation plus introducing training, mentoring and role modelling. It’s important that the leaders and managers across the organisation support and model appropriate ethical behaviour as a negative ethical culture can be introduced when leaders bend rules, turn a blind eye, or in some way condone unethical behaviour.

Transparency and accountability

Acting transparently involves disclosing relevant information to stakeholders and the community to provide insight into the organisation’s decision-making processes, procedures and performance. Of course, real transparency can involve sharing negative as well as positive information and this can reveal flaws, mistakes and mis-steps. To be truly transparent takes courage. However, as a trust repair mechanism showing your ‘warts and all’ is an important step to take. Accountability involves putting in place mechanisms that allow for the organisation to be tracked so those outside can see that they are doing what they said they would do.


This involves getting a third party, or independent person, who has a high level of trustworthiness to be involved in some way in how the organisation is addressing the breach of trust. For example,  an appointment to a board, or creating a special position for a trusted person to scrutinise performance is an example of using trust transference for trust repair.

For more details please refer:

Reinhard Bachmann, Nicole Gillespie, and Richard Priem, “Repairing Trust in Organizations and Institutions: Toward a Conceptual Framework”, Organization Studies, September 2015; vol. 36, 9: pp. 1123-1142.

About Author

Maryanne Martin