Trust is frequently taken for granted until it has been broken, and when a crisis of trust emerges, leaders and organizations often find themselves ill-prepared to not only deal with the fallout, but helpless on how to begin the process of rebuilding it. Whether trust has been broken on the individual or organizational level, there are key steps to take, and pitfalls to avoid, during the process of rebuilding trust with internal and external stakeholders.
Yesterday I partnered with Linda Locke, a corporate reputation management expert and Senior Vice President at Standing Partnership, to host the Trust Across America radio show. We explored the topic of how leaders respond to and lead during a crisis of trust. One glance at the news headlines tells you there is no shortage of crises facing leaders today. Whether it’s politics, government, business, sports, or non-profit organizations, there are plenty of contemporary examples of individuals leading during a crisis of trust. Some manage it well; most don’t. The problem? They respond in the wrong way.
Linda suggests there are four primary ways leaders can respond to a crisis of trust:
1. Deny – This is a viable strategy if you can truthfully say you have no culpability or responsibility for the crisis at hand. However, if you have any involvement in the situation, no matter how small, then you need to own up to your actions. We have seen way too many leaders or public figures use this strategy in an attempt to cover their misdeeds, only to have it come back to haunt them when the truth finally surfaced. Think Bill Clinton, Anthony Wiener, Ryan Braun, Lance Armstrong, etc. Deniers would be well served to follow Mark Twain’s advice: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
2. Justify – Just like the previous strategy, justifying your actions could be a legitimate response if you truly had no alternative course of action. Sometimes leaders are faced with a trust dilemma, where upholding trust with one group of stakeholders may violate the trust of a different group. We see this often in government, politics, and business, where stakeholder groups have competing interests. In these situations it’s important for leaders and organizations to have a clear set of values that guide their decisions and actions. That doesn’t make it easier to lead during a crisis of trust, but it provides a path forward. On the flip side, trying to justify your actions when you could have acted in a more trustworthy fashion, makes you appear insincere, irresponsible, and incompetent.
3. Excuse – Children are a great example of how this strategy is used, aren’t they?. Think of the typical things a child says when confronted with wrongdoing…It’s not my fault! She made me do it! It’s her fault! Unfortunately, too many leaders haven’t grown out of their childish ways. In an effort to shift blame or responsibility, leaders often respond to a crisis of trust by making excuses. Whether it is natural disasters, the actions of another party, market conditions, governmental policies, or any number of other reasons, the excuse strategy always tries to lay responsibility at the feet of another. Not a recipe for building trust at any time, especially during a crisis.
4. Apologize – Ok, finally a strategy that makes sense! Of course, this is the tried and true, most effective strategy for leading during a crisis of trust. Saying I’m sorry are the two most powerful words you can use to begin rebuilding trust. Using those words conveys remorse for your actions, demonstrates humility, and displays vulnerability, all of which are vital to repairing a breach of trust. Other essential ingredients of an effective apology include not using conditional language, expressing empathy for the offended party, listening to concerns, and committing to not repeating the behavior.
Just like very few people intentionally plan for a natural disaster by having reserves of food, water, and emergency supplies, few leaders have a plan of action for how to respond during a crisis of trust. Although there isn’t a single, one-size-fits-all crisis response plan, leaders should invest the time necessary to develop a strategy tailored to the needs of their organizations.
Are there other strategies you would offer for leading during a crisis? If so, share your thoughts by leaving a comment.