4 Ways to Lead During a Crisis of Trust

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.

14 thoughts on “4 Ways to Lead During a Crisis of Trust

  1. Randy, I believe I’ve been dealing with a crisis of trust at work for a few years now. In our case, I’d say the crisis is across the leadership tier, and likely stems from owners who struggle to truly empower their leaders to perform effectively. In my case in particular, I try to focus on pace, patience, and attention. slowing the pace of my complicated IT message to leadership, patience with leadership as they continue to struggle with trust issues, and attention to their needs as the owners and leaders.

    To date, I have seen little in the way of progress, but this issue tends to ebb and flow, making continuous assessment difficult.

    • Hi Cale,

      Your situation brings up an important point. The opposite of trust is control (not distrust as some would assume). To trust, one needs to give up an element of control and it sounds as though your senior leaders might be struggling with that very issue. When people don’t feel empowered, they end up resigning themselves to just waiting around to be told what to do – not a good situation for anyone. It sounds like you’re pursuing a wise strategy of patiently working to change the culture of your organization.

      Thanks for taking the time to add your thoughts, I appreciate it.


  2. Of course to deny, justify, or excuse are wrong, and to apologize is only the beginning of rebuilding trust. A leader must also make a public commitment to rebuild trust and then follow through giving updates on how trust rebuilding is progressing. A leader must put trust visibly on the agenda and discuss it with his/her colleagues. Only by paying visible, public attention to trust can the crisis of mistrust be overcome. So, I would add a 5th word to this excellent blog: Attention.

  3. Hi Bob. I wholeheartedly agree! “Attention” is an excellent addition to this list. Leaders have to visibly and consistently lead the way during the process of rebuilding trust. Using the old Harry Truman mentality of “the buck stops here,” leaders have to remember they are the ones ultimately responsible. Managing the rebuilding of trust during a crisis is not something to be delegated.

    Thanks for taking the time to add your wisdom.


  4. Now if only we can get our current president to stop blaming our previous president. What kind of example is he setting for our country?

    How do we get this list to him?

  5. Sadly, In the years since I have been of voting age, I’ve not seen a president that I would associate with leadership or the qualities it embodies. I prefer not to look to presidents for leadership, but rather within and to those on my team empowered to bring about change; something our current president spoke of during his campaigns. Change is the incremental improvement that results from continuously doing the small things that take us in the right direction.

    I believe our entire nation is in a crisis of trust and that it will not be president’s who rise to the challenges, but little people like us. I think we need an army to win, but not an army of soldiers; we need an army of leaders.

  6. Let’s bring this subject a bit closer to ‘a day at the office’. My advice would be to do the opposite of what you feel like if your trust is broken. If you feel solving it on your own because you do not trust the other person; ask him for help. If you feel like controlling and monitoring because you do not trust your colleague, let go and give trust. If you feel like complaining because somebody failed, give a compliment about what went well. If you feel like defending yourself because you are under a ‘trust-attack’ try to open up and ask the other person to explain. Rebuilding trust means staying in touch.

    • Interesting perspective Gytha, I can certainly see the merit in taking the opposite approach to what our initial reaction wants to be. When there are crises of trust, our natural instinct is often to pull away and protect ourselves. Sometimes that’s appropriate, and sometimes it isn’t. Your point reminds me that we should pause and reflect before just responding.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion.


  7. Delivery is important too (listen how GM CEO Mary Barra on YouTube talked about being a mom-right words but because she was reading them, they came off as insincere).
    Left out of this discussion is perhaps the most important thing of all-actions speak louder than words.

    • Good point. Delivery of the message can often cloud the content and have an adverse effect. Actions do speak louder than words and will ultimately make or break the overall strategy.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion.


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