Trust is a gift we hand out to people.
We often use shaky hands, reaching out cautiously without a guarantee about how that trust will be used (or abused), and we don't always know if the recipient will receive it willingly. Even the act of giving trust is an act of trust. Sometimes, we trust others and then discover it was a mistake. Sometimes, we trust and realize it was the best decision we've ever made--we don't ever regret it, even for a moment.
I'll be honest: My greatest act of trust was getting married 29 years ago. Who knew it would last? The statistics would say it was a total shot in the dark. Easily the best decision I made was to get married and form a bond of trust that can't compare to anything else.
Still, as leaders in the workplace, it's difficult to remember that trust is something we can give out and take away, but the level of loyalty is never the same as it is in a personal relationship like marriage. We have to earn trust at work. When we make a mistake--as a boss, as a coworker, or as a subordinate--we will discover that trust can fizzle. We'll steal the credit on a project, or chew someone out unnecessarily. It will happen.
The question is: How do we earn it back?
From what I've experienced, earning back trust involves both forgiveness and restoration. It also involves forgetfulness. When you lose trust, you have to be willing to seek forgiveness and restore the work relationship, and then you (and the employee who stopped trusting you) have to learn how to forget anything ever happened.
That is often the hardest part.
Fortunately, it's not impossible.
The first step involves being honest about what you did to lose the trust. You have to own up to the mistakes in your own thought process and on an emotional level, then go to the person you offended or who is now trusting you for some other reason and clear the air. It helps to explain the details--not as an excuse for your behavior, but as a way to get more specific about where you messed up and why you think it was a big deal.
The next step is to forget. Both parties in the work relationship have to agree to forget there were mistakes and problems. You have to set the conflict aside and put it in a box. This is not easy to do, but it's a helpful step on the road to reconciliation. The part you need to remember is what defined your work relationship before you screwed up. What did you say? How did you act? What worked before? What was your normal mode of operation?
The important part of this forgive-and-forget model is you have to be intentional--you need to talk it out and stick with that plan. It's a time-consuming process. Restoring trust is not an act of quick assumption, it's an act of gradual submission. You submit to the idea that you made mistakes and then you forget that you had the conflict and then start acting in a way that shows you are right back where you were before.
One reason this works is that we all want to see good intentions. It shows the relationship is worth fixing, that this is not just a way to get a colleague to do work for us again. As a leader, it means you are showing humility--you're not perfect--and that speaks volumes.
Even for the employee who might quit, being intentional about forgiving and forgetting shows you don't want to ignore problems and hope they go away. You want to be an active restorer. You want to pursue the act of reconciliation in a way that shows you will keep doing that no matter what. You're serious about it. You want to become known as someone who cares about restoring relationships. It defines you as a person.
Employees will stick around when they see that. They will start trusting you again. They will see you as a great leader. And, the best part is, when you screw up again and an employee sees how flawed you are and that you are far from perfect, you can start the rebuilding process again. This time, it will be even stronger.