Do you have a difficult work colleague you’re dealing with? You’re not the only one. I was speaking at a leadership conference to a packed audience on the topic of how to manage workplace conflict. We discussed step-by-step leadership tools to have the “difficult conversations” that no one wants to have, but are critical to building trust, alignment, transparency, and moving things forward.
A participant came to speak to me afterwards. She is highly results driven and was frustrated that a work colleague was completely uncooperative and thwarting her efforts on a team project. Sound familiar? Our teams, projects, and results get stuck when there is lack of trust in a work relationship. Research shows two thirds of Americans believe most people can’t be trusted. Here are the three steps we discussed to rebuild broken trust:
Start by managing yourself – Don’t you just hate it when you have to deal with that difficult person at work? They can be unreasonable, incompetent, or just plain lazy. Well, yes and they are likely thinking of us in the same way. Arrogant. Rude. Aggressive. We each believe our view of the situation is the truth. If we want to rebuild trust we have to be willing to do three things:
- Take personal accountability for restoring trust (vs. waiting for the other person to miraculously come to their senses and change their behavior)
- See the other person in a new light (i.e. trying to do their best)
- Accept that their view of the situation can also be the truth (even though it conflicts with yours).
This first step is crucial – and it’s difficult because it requires us to give up a bit of our own ego. We have to be willing to shift our own perspective and stop blaming the other person for all that has gone wrong. In his book Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman shares data that suggests that our human brains unconsciously pick up on and mirror others’ intentions. If we want to restore trust, we have to start first by trusting others. Trust cannot happen when we hold blame or judgment against another person.
Engage in a “difficult conversation” – When trust breaks down, often communication does as well. As the leader who has taken accountability to restore trust, we also need to have the courage to have the uncomfortable conversation. While the process is outlined here in more detail, here are the fundamentals of this conversation:
- Start by stating the obvious (i.e. there is lack of trust). Acknowledging the reality that no one talks about is an enormous relief and sets the tone for transparency.
- State your intention to re-establish trust and ask for their help in doing so.
- Take accountability for your part in the broken trust (yes, this is tough).
- Listen with empathy, acknowledging disappointment, anger, or hurt feelings on both sides that are associated with broken trust. Here’s how to do that. Resist the urge to defend your actions.
- Find common goals by asking powerful questions (here are some powerful questions to ask).
- Using powerful questions, get their commitment to a set of behaviors and actions that will reinforce trust. If needed create a start, stop and continue list of actions and behaviors.
- Agree on how you will give each other feedback on your actions. Focus on catching each other doing something right.
Demonstrate trust through your actions – Trust can take time to re-establish. As a leader we need to take 100% accountability for following through on our part of the actions agreed – regardless of the other person’s response. It can be hard to follow-through, especially if you perceive the other person not reciprocating. That is when it’s time to get back to step 1 and repeat the cycle.
Our results from this exercise may or may not be perfect. Expect imperfection, and give yourself a pat on the back for being the bigger leader and learning from this process.
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A version of this post first appeared on my Forbes.com blog.