Trust breakdowns cause havoc in teams, families, and relationships. 

Trust is an intangible element that allows everyone to work seamlessly. With trust, we experience joy and satisfaction in our relationships and at work. 

 Without trust, there are conflicts and ego clashes. Trust breakdowns lead to many problems. At work, we have rough meetings, customers are affected and deliveries get delayed. In personal relationships, it causes heartburn, sour moods, stand-offs, grief, and breakups. Conversations become hard and solutions become tougher to reach. When trust breaks down it has a spiraling effect.

 Understanding trust and its components have helped me to:

  • Examine my inner chatter
  • Understand my assessments about others
  • Gather data, examine it and use it
  • Get clarity on what I want or need
  • Make requests to others
  • Decide if a relationship is worthy of my time and energy


I found the 4 components of trust by Charles Feltman very powerful. I now make better assessments in relationships. It helps me restart a stalled conversation and deal with trust breakdowns. All the definitions below are from his book The Thin Book of Trust (2009).

1. Sincerity

This is the assessment that you are honest, that you say what you mean and mean what you say; you can be believed and taken seriously.

It also means that when you express an opinion it is valid, useful, and backed by sound thinking and evidence. 

It means that your actions will align with your words.

What do I do when sincerity is shaky?

I have had experiences where I know there is falsehood, lies, or twisting of information. My experience is to use prior data to confront it or to say:

  • ‘This does not fit me.’
  • ‘I hear you and am not convinced.’
  • ‘I need more evidence or data for me to take this in.’
  • ‘I hear your data but this does not ring true for me given this (other) information I have.’

Presenting hard data helps. 

Getting all parties to the table also helps and one needs to prompt to ensure that everyone says what they need to.

It is the direct and respectful expression that has helped me the most. At times when I have done this, the individual has come clean or they have withdrawn from claims they were making.

I am happy to give others a long rope. I allow their withdrawal with grace. When relationships are very personal, I have expressed my disappointment and hurt. Sincerity is about being able to show yourself to the other person instead of masking.

2. Reliability

This is the assessment that you meet the commitments you make, that you keep your promises.

What do I do when reliability is shaky?

I am very direct with stating my expectations. I say,

  • ‘I was hoping this would happen based on your commitment and I am disappointed that it didn’t.’
  • ‘When you say one thing and do another, it does not help me. I am left wondering what is going on.’
  • ‘I am used to much more reliability in the agreements we make. I request you to let me know next time when you see you cannot do what you have said you would.’
  • ‘I feel let down as I was depending on you to…’

In a close relationship, I express my feelings about how it landed for me. I state the request I wish to make to them.

If the unreliability is recurring, I am additionally careful. I do not rely on them for important tasks and it becomes my responsibility to think up a Plan B ahead of time!

3. Competence

This is the assessment that you have the ability to do what you are doing or propose to do. In the workplace, this usually means the other person believes you have the requisite capacity, skill, knowledge, and resources to do a particular task or job.

What do I do when competence is shaky?

Firstly, I take the trouble to conduct a well-planned and detailed initial meeting. I ask the right questions and see samples of work in progress. I ask for testimonials. I state the quality and timeliness of the deliverables needed. Doing all this helps me make my assessment of comfort that we are ready to move ahead.

If I am working with people whose competence is known, then giving ample opportunities for clarifying conversations helps. Frequent feedback on their work is useful. Finally, using specific data, I can show what is the gap between what was expected and what got delivered.

While assessing competence in teams, it is important to have psychological safety for people to say what they know, don’t know, and need help for. When leaders can provide this safe space, trust breakdowns are minimal. We can instead prepare to build up competence and fill the gaps.

4. Care

This is the assessment that you have the other person’s interests in mind as well as your own when you make decisions and take actions. Of the four assessments of trustworthiness, care is the most important for building lasting trust.

When people believe you are only concerned with your self-interest and don’t consider their interests as well, they may trust your sincerity, reliability, and competence, but they will tend to limit this trust to specific situations or transactions.

On the other hand, when people believe you have their interest in mind, they will extend their trust more broadly to you (Feltman, 2009).

What do I do when care is shaky?

This has been one of the trickiest to manage. When I have an assessment that care is the problem, I firstly do not enter into any agreement or association at all. This saves me heartburn, time, and energy.

If it is an ongoing relationship, I inherit and I sense what their care is at the core. I then find a very direct and respectful way to say exactly that and ask questions to clarify.

  • ‘This step/action takes care of what is useful for you, but it does not address my need.’
  • ‘What you have said has (this) at the core but what I need is (that) and how does that fit for you?’
  • ‘What I need is (this) but instead what I see is (that).
  • Is it possible that we do (this) instead of (that) and do tell me if that takes care of what is important for you?’

This aspect is always two sided and needs an alignment on both sides for the relationship to sustain and trust to be built.

You will notice in all my illustrations that there is no workaround for an open conversation. Learning to be skilled at open, direct, and respectful conversations is at the heart of building trust. They are also the most essential to great problem-solving and to rebuild trust.

What have been your go-to ideas of managing trust deficit or dealing with trust breakdowns?

Sailaja Manacha
Sailaja Manacha

Sailaja Manacha, a Master certified Coach from ICF, is known for her programs and coaching methods that combine psychology with leadership practices. In her work, Sailaja draws from Psychology, Ontology, NLP and Spiritual frameworks as well as rich, real-world experiences.

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