Trust is the foundation in effective relationships and because any business has an assortment of relationships, there is a need for trust in the workplace. Yet, trust means different things to different people. There is a truth about integrity, ethics and honesty in business – one size does not fit all - and some excuse bad behavior as playing the business game (“it was not personal - just a business decision”). Given that reality, any of us likely have experienced betrayal in our work settings.
Betrayal, the loss of trust, occurs on a continuum from major to minor incidents. Sometimes betrayal is not about what happened, but rather how it happened and comes in three types: 1) unintentional, 2) premeditated, and 3) opportunistic. Most betrayals in the workplace are opportunistic where specific circumstances develop and are paired with a condition where more gain can be obtained through dishonesty and manipulation than by acting with integrity. This “opportunity” creates a temptation that can drive people to not keep their agreements or mislead coworkers to further their own agenda.
When confronted with dishonest or unethical behavior, a favorite tool of the opportunistic betrayer is the claim of “it’s just a misunderstanding” where they claim their actions are somehow being misinterpreted. This “cover” prevents any level of direct or honest communication to develop and erodes the professional relationship - at times beyond repair. It is very difficult to have a relationship with such an insincere person as there is a perpetuation of the façade of “I’m really a good, amiable person – you just misunderstood me.” This personality is actually more difficult to work with than the directly unpleasant and self-absorbed coworker who straightforwardly communicates a goal of self-interest above all else.
Persistent dishonesty in a work environment is toxic to the individuals involved and to the whole system. Betrayal undermines trust, communication, creativity and innovation. When these feelings are chronic and intense, the result is a negative, unpleasant or even openly hostile environment. The detrimental impact of spending hours daily in such a place is enormous.
After a dishonesty or manipulation, trusting again is very difficult. The first tricky question is “Do they deserve my trust?’ Some betrayals are isolated events within the context of an otherwise positive relationship. These work relationships can be repaired following betrayal. It is important to talk to your coworker about your feelings and allow them an opportunity to restore the feeling of goodwill so that the relationship can move forward.
However, not all deserve trust. A famous definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. If you have repeated experiences of deceit with a person and/or you observe this behavior in their interactions with other people, it is unlikely realistic to expect anything different from them. In business, it is not always possible to end these toxic relationships completely but it is important to be cautious in your interactions and limit vulnerability.
Even if trust cannot be repaired, it is important to forgive and to move on from the betrayal. A desire for vengeance, vindication, or retribution can lead to obsession and often does more damage than the original betrayal. Forgiveness is important as part of the process necessary for healing. The most powerful result of forgiveness is to allow the forgiver to reclaim the peace of mind that comes from letting go of past hurts. You need not condone the action, nor deny the painful feelings – in fact, you must acknowledge the facts and emotions, in order to know what you are ready to release. As you free yourself from the pain caused by others, you regain personal power and self-respect. Acceptance is not condoning what was done, but experiencing the reality of what happened without denying or resenting it.