When Trust Breaks, Everything Breaks

Published: November 7, 2023

There is simply nothing more fundamental to relationships and team wellness than trust. It is also the hardest element of connection to both earn and maintain. Since everyone has been burned at some point in their past, it often only takes a small breach to devolve the connection back to negative territory. The chance that a teammate will lower their guard again after a violation, no matter how minor, is slim. You had – and lost – your chance.

Think about all the essential aspects of collaboration that rely on trust. Why would I engage in a partnership with you if integrity was in question? Why would I join you in a risky innovation? How could I justify placing my care in your hands when I’m vulnerable? These are among the casualties of broken trust.

A diagram of concentric circles is a valuable model for understanding the impact of damage in relationships. Every ripple of the swelling circles is strong and interconnected. Any breach in the system directly impacts the rest of the system. The closer a trauma is to the center, the worse the damage. Likewise, if strength exists nearest to the center, engagement, innovation, and resilience are made possible.

Who is in your inner circle? Somehow, they must have earned their place. Through thick and thin, they must have re-earned their status as a trusted partner over and over. Motives and agendas are no longer questioned.

Workplaces defined by sustained and deepening trust are rare. Sadly, it’s easier to be disgruntled and stop trying than it is to continuously invest and reinvest in wellness. Normalizing dysfunction takes less effort than repairing a fracture. So ‘good enough’ wins the battle for excellence, and silent dissatisfaction fuels the vibe of the culture.

The remedy begins with acknowledgement. Recovery requires ownership of the problem. If you’re at the bottom of the organization chart, no one would question your preference to wait and see if anyone above you assumes accountability. If you are at the top of the hierarchy, literally everyone below you is waiting for you to display some courage. Everyone.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.