How To Overcome Mistrust


“Without trust, words become the hollow sound of a wooden gong. With trust, words become life itself.” — Anonymous

Is everybody at work on your side?  If not, how can you turn it around?  When people aren’t on your side, they can make your life more difficult.  From dragging their feet when you need their help, to working against you behind  closed doors.  How do you overcome a lack of trust?

In Influence Without Authority (2nd Edition), Allan Cohen and David Bradford write about how to overcome mistrust.


You start by listening.  Listen to understand.  Don’t listen to attack or defend.  Own your mistakes.  Avoiding responsibility, increases distrust.  Most importantly, find a way to prove your trustworthiness through actions.  This could mean creating a pilot project where you take the first risk.

Summary of Steps

Here’s are the key steps:

  • Step 1. Put the issue on the table.
  • Step 2. Listen to understand.
  • Step 3. Admit and own mistakes.
  • Step 4. Ask a lot of questions to understand.
  • Step 5. Make a deal that proves worthiness.

Step 1. Put the Cards on the Table

Lay it out on the table.  Bring the issues out in the open where you can deal with them directly.

Cohen and Bradford write:

“If others do not like or trust you (or your department), work on that directly.  Start by asking what is bothering them and what their concerns would be.  Start by asking what is bothering them and what their concerns would be if you were to collaborate.  Listen carefully to the answer, and don’t let your defensiveness turn off the hearing aid.  Even when they are reluctant to be specific, you can often sense what is being avoided or read between the lines.  If necessary, you can specify what they have done or said that makes you think there is mistrust.  You can refer to awkward silences, phone calls not returned, averted glances, or whatever it is that has made you think that they aren’t fully trustful.  This direct, concrete offer of data can be uncomfortable but edge the colleague toward greater openness.  You are putting the cards on the table, so you are more trustworthy.”

Step 2. Listen to Understand.

Don’t pounce on what you learn.  Instead of listen to attack, listen to learn.  This is where your active listening and empathic listening skills help.  Listening closely helps build trust.

Cohen and Bradford write:

“The other reason for listening closely is that the process of doing so also builds trust.  Unless you pounce on what you learn and use it to put the colleague at a disadvantage or look bad, listening intently and demonstrating that you understand and are concerned about what is being said are relationship builders.”

Step 3. Admit and Own Mistakes

Denial will get you nowhere fast.  Own your mistakes.  Admit them.  Vulnerability is a bridge to the other person’s trust.

Cohen and Bradford write:

“Often people’s attitudes are shaped by past events (real or imagined).  It is helpful to ask about past experiences that are affecting current perceptions.    If you or your department has done something wrong, admit it.  Evading responsibility for your mistakes will reduce the perception of your trustworthiness, and owning up to them makes you more credible.  Besides, vulnerability often creates some reciprocal willingness to be more vulnerable by being open, so it is a way of utilizing reciprocity to make a good exchange.”

Step 4. Ask a Lot of Questions to Understand

Be curious.  Ask questions to genuinely understand.

Cohen and Bradford write:

“Be sure to ask a lot of questions about the other person’s interests, challenges, and preoccupations; then respond with unfeigned interest.  Few people do not want to be understood, and, again, demonstrating real interest and curiosity helps reduce suspicion.  Furthermore, it is almost always true that when you really understand what the world is like to someone, you will feel more sympathetic, and that is critical to enhancing the relationship.”

Make a Deal that Proves Worthiness

Take the first risk.  Consider a pilot project to prove that you mean what you say.

Cohen and Bradford write:

“Next, think about the ways to make a deal that proves worthiness, especially where you take the first risk.  Can you offer the equivalent of a free trial, a money-back guarantee, or a pilot project that will not only demonstrate the value of your offering, but also prove that you deliver as you claim?  Can you go out of your way to be accommodating, whether it is literally traveling a long distance, being available at odd hours (e.g. doing a conference call with an Asian colleague at a time convenient to them, not you) or obtaining requested information?  Anything you can do to be more risk than the colleague will help reduce suspicion of you or your department.”

Lessons Learned at Work

One of the most effective techniques I’ve found for rebuilding trust is the jigsaw technique.   Basically, you split up the work across the team where each person contributes a piece of the puzzle to the solution.  This collaboration and inter-dependency helps people get over prejudices and trust by working towards a common goal.

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Photo by alexindigo


  1. Good stuff!
    I like “Put the Cards on the Table” the most. It resonates a lot with Vulnerability Based Trust you were blogging some time ago on your other blog.
    I like it.

    Donkey [Shrek Movie]: Well, donkeys don’t have no layers. We wear our fear right there on our sleeves.


  2. Yes, great stuff. I have an experience with that. It was pretty hard to make myself vulnerable. All the frustrations of somebody against the group went squarely for me.

    People need to vent off, I guess.

    But, ultimately, it helped to clarify many things, put things in order, and act accordingly.

  3. Distrust in the workplace is even a bigger issue for employers than it is for employees, isn’t it? It can really hurt productivity.

  4. @Alik – I”m a Shrek fan. I forgot about that line.

    @Miguel – It sounds like clearing the air, helped you move forward. One thing to remember when people vent is that you are not your behavior and that you get to decide what to do with the feedback. Good job.

    @Vered – I think this is particularly true in knowledge work where what you don’t know can hurt you.

    @Stacey – It’s one of the best books I’ve read. The patterns and practices in the book are immediately useful and they actually work.

  5. JD
    Do you find listening…really listening, without your own agenda to defend or justify is often the most difficult task in communicating. I have a quick mind, and it is a conscious choice to remove my thinking head from my heart, and simply hold the space for someone else to share their point of view. Thanks!

  6. @Harmony

    I know exactly what that’s like, but it’s easy for me to really listen at this point simply because I’ve been in an environment where you have to divorce your ego and get your thinking beat up daily. I’m surrounded by people trained in critical thinking and precision questioning and answering. Sometimes I’m so busy listening, I forget any points I had 😉

    Two techniques that help me a lot are:
    1. Challenge myself to be able to echo back anybody’s arguments/perspectives in detail.
    2. Ask more than I tell. Statements create arguments. Questions to understand give the other person a change to share the air and feel valued and make their point.

    One way I stay in the right mindset when I ask questions to understand is I remind myself – “see it through their eyes; be in their shoes.”

    I think there’s also stages of communication. In the beginning, it’s important to elaborate and understand. This builds rapport and improves thinking. Later, it may be important to spiral down and ask questions that expose issues in the thinking.

  7. Admitting mistakes is so important. When I just admit mistakes, I can stop worrying about who’s out to bust me: there’s nothing to “bust.” Integrity is just another way of keeping life simple.

  8. @Sara – Beautiful point. It takes the wind out of the sails and yes, integrity is yet another way of keeping life simple.

  9. FYI – My copy of the book just arrived in the mail this week. Thanks for the book suggestion!

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  11. I do believe that I’ve just stumbled across a blog that’s worth reading..

    The key to all situations of miss-trust, IMHO, is communication. If it is unfounded, then communication will sort it out. However, if you’re genuinely a tit, well then… yes.

    I don’t have much time right now, but I’ll definitely be revisiting here this evening or perhaps tomorrow when I’m sick of the family.

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