Do You Admit When You’re Wrong?

Responding to Violations in Trust

By In Weekly Email 5 minute read time

The Problem & The Question

There is something in business or in the corporate world that is violated every day.  Perhaps, hundreds, even thousands of times, each day.  And that’s trust. 

We came across a study that sought to answer a question—what’s the best way to repair trust in the workplace when it’s been broken?  Wanna fact check us?  Go here.

Theory & Practice 

The cool thing about this study is that the authors pit two competing strategies of trust repair against each other. 

Generally, there are two ways to respond to a trust violation if you are the accused.  The first is the apology where you bow deeply.  An apology carries risk as it acknowledges guilt.  Think—I screwed up and it’ll never happen again. A potential positive is when a leader expresses regret and assumes ownership of the violation, employees may experience empathy and, perhaps, expect a lower chance of the violation occurring again. 

The other strategy is for the accuser to deny.  I didn’t do that and have no idea what you’re talking about!  Next question.  The logic here is that the accused party, like your employees, may, by chance, give you the benefit of the doubt. The risk here is that by not taking ownership, the leader is indicating that there’s no behavior that needs to be rectified.  For that reason, some may think that the leader will violate trust again as no learning is taking place. 

The authors also describe two types of trust that matter to the study.  The first type of trust is called competence based trust.  Competence based trust is strong when employees believe that their leader possesses the technical and interpersonal skills to do the job.  In this context, a competent leader who fails to do her job because of laziness or lack of motivation could damage impressions of competence based trust.  That’s bad. 

But even worse is integrity based trust.  Employees with high levels of integrity based trust of their leader believe that he operates and adheres to a moral and ethical system and set of principles. 

The Samples and Measures

We’re going to try to keep this simple but the design of this experiment is critical to understand the results. 

200 undergraduate and graduate students watched a video of a recruiter interviewing a potential accountant.  The participants in this study were exposed to one of four conditions.  During the interview, it was divulged that the accountant had made a serious error in a previous job.  In the first instance, the mistake was framed as one of competence.  In the second instance, the mistake was framed as one of integrity—that the accountant willfully and intentionally committed the error.  So, the authors toggled between the type of trust violation—one of competence or one of integrity. 

Then the authors toggled between two other conditions central to the article—the response that the accounting actor used to deal with the trust violation.  In the first condition, the accountant owned up to the mistake and offered an apology.  In the next scenario, the fake accountant opted for a fierce denial.

Based across these four conditions, the 200 student participants were asked how likely they were to take a risk on this person, hire this person, and assign him job tasks and responsibilities.       

We Now Open the Kimono!

Let’s begin where the apology worked best.  Students reported higher perceived integrity and a greater willingness to hire the accountant when he apologized for the breach of trust related to competence.  Essentially, the authors believe that we’re prone to view this as a one-off and not likely to occur again in the future.  In short, then, breaches of competence = apology.  

When a breach of trust violates ethical, moral, and integrity codes, accepting, owning, and apologizing for such a breach is not in your best interest.  Here, denial works best.  When the fictitious accountant offered a denial to the accusations of willful and intentional misconduct, opposed to an apology, students were more likely to give higher marks on perceived integrity and willingness to hire.  At work here, according to the authors, is a certain type of logic.  In a way, integrity cannot be proven.  It can only be disproved (e.g., I’ll trust you until you give me a reason NOT to).  When the accountant admitted to and apologized for this breach of trust, he was providing evidence and signaling NOT to trust him in the future.  So, breaches of integrity = denial.

Breaches of trust occur frequently in the workplace.  We hope no subscriber ever experiences this.  But if you’re the target or the accused, we give you some ammo.  For mistakes of competence, own up to it and just eat it.  For accusations related to your integrity, you may want to follow the lead of Donald Trump and dig in and deny, deny, and deny. 

Remember, we won’t judge you here at the Kimono. 

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