Facing a Setback? 16 Surefire Ways to Rebuild Team Trust

In order to maintain credibility in the face of obstacles, leaders must learn to embrace honesty and vulnerability.

Newsweek Expert Forum members share industry insights.
Newsweek Expert Forum members share industry insights.

In the face of a setback, such as layoffs or a deal falling through, a leader's next actions make all the difference for employees. Leaning on the support of employees and, in turn, supporting employees is critical for building and maintaining leadership credibility and the trust of your team when things go south.

Moving away from the image of a powerful, all-knowing leader can be difficult, especially when the weight of the organization is on your shoulders. To help leaders boldly face and address business mishaps, 16 members of Newsweek Expert Forum shared steps that business leaders should take to rebuild trust with their team after a setback.

1. Be Upfront and Own It

Credibility is everything to a leader. When facing a setback, you need to own it and come clean to the group. Nobody expects perfection. How leaders respond to adversity sends a critical signal. Engage the group for strategic ideas about how best to move forward and get their buy-in. Honesty and transparency builds confidence and trust. - Michael Frazier, Bedell Frazier Investment Counselling

2. Take Full Responsibility

It is not easy to restore broken trust, but it's possible. Start by acknowledging the misstep and taking responsibility. Next, share the corrective actions you plan to take and explain what you learned from the situation. Then ask, "What else can I do?" If you ask before offering anything, you are putting the onus on them to solve the problem. Lastly, be consistent and patient. Rebuilding trust takes time. - Michelle Tillis Lederman, The Connector's Advantage

3. Acknowledge What Employees Are Dealing With

Leaders need to recognize that employees are grieving non-death-related workplace losses. Setbacks and layoffs impact employee well-being. The first step is to acknowledge loss, help employees grow from the experience and make meaning out of it. - Barbara Rubel, Griefwork Center, Inc.

4. Listen to the Concerns of Employees

The first impulse is to explain and bring clarity to the "why." Yet, listening seems to be a more strategic move. Deeply listening to people's concerns allows you to see how they interpret an action. It is a bonding and relationship-building experience, and employees are then more likely to listen back. Show you're genuinely curious to hear what they have to say. Make sense of all the perspectives together. - Inga Arianna Bielinska, Inga Arianna Bielinska

5. Overcommunicate With Your Team

Your teams may not truly hear or even believe your message the first or second time you address the setback. Ensure that they do by taking a multi-pronged approach. Use town halls, email blasts, Q&As and roundtables. Cascade the messaging down by having your managers address it in team and one-on-one meetings. Ensure your message sinks through with multiple communication methods. - Loren Margolis, Training & Leadership Success LLC

6. Be Honest, Empathetic and Vulnerable

After a company setback, a team will be uncertain about the future and they will look to their leaders for direction. As a business leader, you need to communicate with your team and create as much certainty as you can regardless of how uncertain the future may be. You do this by communicating what you do and don't know. Being honest, empathetic and vulnerable will help rebuild trust. - Kevin Vallely, The AIP Group

7. Have a Proactive Communication Plan in Place

We have found that transparency and commitment are critical for success. When businesses experience setbacks, it's not just leaders who are worried, as other team members inevitably find out. Having a proactive communication plan that focuses on leadership plans for the business as well as their personal commitment will help assuage concerns and make team members feel part of the process. - Jacob Kupietzky, HCT Executive Interim Management & Consulting

8. Present the Reality of the Challenges Ahead

Transparency is key. You may not have the solution yet, but presenting the full and total challenge as it presents itself establishes the foundation for future curveballs to be limited. Use the communication vehicle that best suits your corporate style. No matter if it's email, text, Zoom or in-person, ensure your team knows all the dirt. Then immediately move to stage two: fixing the problem. - Cheri Beranek, Clearfield

9. Share Plans for Moving Forward

Any setback can rattle the team dynamic. I believe that it's at these moments when leadership is crucial. First, you need to be transparent about the setback and the plans for moving forward. Next, you need to check in with each employee about how they are doing. Last, you need to show them that you are rolling up your sleeves and working right alongside them to continue moving forward. - Brian Meert, AdvertiseMint

10. Invite Employees to Share Feedback

Transparency based on mutual respect is the key to rebuilding trust. It's important to demonstrate this mutual respect for employees by taking the time to hear them out and ask them for their candid feedback. Invite them to express their concerns and assure them there are no repercussions for sharing. Once you know what they are most worried about, you can address them with honest answers and actions. - April Margulies, Trust Relations

11. Build a Culture with a 'Reserve of Trust'

Once trust is broken, it's almost impossible to rebuild. Where things go wrong, lack of trust is often part of the cause, not an outcome. Leaders must build trust every day by showing they care about their people and by being open and transparent to create a "reserve of trust" in good times so people will still trust when times are bad. Trust is thus never actually broken, so you don't have the problem! - Chris Roebuck, Simply Success

12. Openly Recognize What Went Wrong

The first step an organization should take is to be honest about what went wrong and draft an improvement plan. Team members want to know they're working for an organization rooted in reality and willing to be transparent so that they can also be prepared to weather the changes that may be on the horizon. Pretending that everything is okay when it isn't can further erode trust and devalue the team. - LaKesha Womack, Womack Consulting Group

13. Step in and Be a Team Ally

Whenever there is a company setback, what is most critical revolves around the business leader rolling up his or her sleeves and being unapologetic in stepping into the same arena with the team. Whether it is a layoff or a new set of partnerships, the leader's primary role is to show up ready to assume ownership, take responsibility and be an ally for his or her team. - Michael Davis, Merek Security Solutions, LLC

14. Close Gaps to Prevent Future Negative Results

Extreme ownership is one of the most critical components for any organization. The negative result may have been preventable by various people throughout the organization, but at the end of the day, it's the team versus the problem. If someone needs to be held accountable, it's the person with the oversight over all actors. Ideally, fault should be blameless, so fix the gaps that allowed it. - Noah Mitsuhashi, noahmitsuhashi.io

15. Focus on Lessons Learned

Lack of trust, fear and loss of morale all come together when a setback occurs. The ability to communicate with clarity is of critical importance in a crisis. Explain the "why" and people will understand. Elaborate on the next steps needed for a comeback from the setback. Reinforce the value of the team and encourage learning lessons from the setback for future positioning. - Vipp Jaswal, VM Inc

16. Highlight the Wins and Accomplishments

When a company has a setback, it's important for a leader to begin building trust by bringing forward the wins and accomplishments. This recognition of things gone right will help close the gap of understanding of why the setback occurred. This is where the leader has to show compassion and empathy for what happened while balancing it with a focus on moving toward the new future. - Nickquolette Barrett, iRock Development Solutions, LLC dba iRock Résumés

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