How To Salvage Sunken Trust

You can salvage trust that is sunk. But some kinds of trust sink deeper than others.

Have you ever faced the need to recover from breaking trust?

Most of us have, and the ones who haven’t just haven’t admitted it. All of life is a web of trust, and arguably the more trust you build, the better off you are.

The author L. Frank Baum wrote in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that “A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.”

Trust likewise ought to be judged not by how trustworthy those around you are, but by how trustworthy you are.

If you think about trust as a ship at sea, then it’s easy to envision how breaking trust essentially sinks the ship.

But, not all breaches of trust are the same. How far must you go to salvage it?

There are four depths that breaches of trust sink to, and our ability to salvage trust depends on how deep it’s sunk.

The Trust Equation

I’ll start with an illustration that is not my own, but provides a useful context for the discussion. The “Trust Equation” is a very interesting piece from author, advisor, and trust guru Charles Green, founder of Trusted Advisor Associates.

Green, working with co-authors David Maister and Robert Galford in the book The Trusted Advisor, outlines an equation for trust that looks like this:

That is to say, trust derives from how we view others’ credibility (our assessment of what they know)…

…Reliability (Our view of how reliably they deliver)…

…Intimacy (Our level of emotional and intellectual comfort with them) and…

…their Self-Orientation (how selfish we think they or their actions are).

The really cool part of the “equation” structure is the insight that all the “good” aspects of trust are additive, but that self orientation undermines it all. The more selfish you are (or even appear), the more you undermine any trust and goodwill that exists.

Self-oriented people are not trustworthy, regardless of their positive attributes.

I’m going to use the four component parts here to outline the four depths of trust recovery.

The Four Depths of Trust Recovery

Recovery of sunken trust is a lot like recovery of a sunken vessel. It depends on the type of vessel as well as the depth of the water. That said, here are four depths of recovery, and some explanation of what it takes to get there and to salvage it.

1. The shoals of trust:

The shallowest form of trust breach to recover from is related to abuses of reliability. Because it is the most visible, reliability is also the easiest to demonstrate and therefore recover from.

Recovery from the shoals of trust (that is to say, the shallow water) can be as simple as improving on clarity and communication of deadlines. Trust sunk through reliability can be recovered relatively quickly because it’s a shallow recovery. People can see you becoming more reliable.

The shoals are where breaches of trust–like missed deadlines or partially completed work–reside. To be clear, they are a breach of trust. But the individual can regain this sort of trust by changing behavior.

Reliability trust is usually the most flexible of trust types out there.

2. The shallow seas:

The next depth of recovery relates to abuses of credibility. When a person is trusted for what they know and chooses to abuse that trust through posing as something they are not, they abuse trust.

In the professional services arena, we see this sort of abuse far too often. “Experts” in one area might represent themselves as expert in another area. They “fake it until they make it.” This is a sort of trust abuse that can only sometimes be surfaced, and then often too late.

Even though the shallow seas are where trust is frequently sunk, it’s a relatively recoverable area. Most of us respect people who stretch their capabilities and expertise. Most of us are willing to offer a person the benefit of the doubt when it comes to testing their boundaries.

Credibility trust is thus relatively flexible. If it is bent, it can be caused to go back into shape with demonstration of more credibility. Brands do this all the time through credibility-stretching brand extensions (remember chocolate Jello gelatin? How about Dr Pepper Marinade? Yep).

Recovery from this sort of trust abuse means just sticking to or falling back on what works to rebuild credibility. It’s not easy, but it is straightforward.

3. Open ocean:

The open ocean of trust abuse–areas where shipwrecks often stay put–is in abuses of trust related to self-orientation. Loss of trust due to selfishness gets into an area that is far less transparent than reliability or credibility, and that makes recovery from a breach of this sort far less likely.

Once someone abuses trust for personal gain, people tend to be wary of working with them again.

Salvaging trust sunk in the open ocean is very tough and takes a lot of time. The magnitude of the breach certainly matters; however, once a person is viewed as self-oriented, trust tends to be extremely hard to build.

There’s a reason that self-orientation undermines all else in the trust equation above.

The open ocean is where shirkers, self-dealers, executives with hidden incentives, and embezzlers reside.

On the lighter side, it’s the realm of the me-monster at your conference table and the credit hog on your team.

4. The Mariana Trench:

The deepest depth of trust recovery–one where recovery is usually impossible–is where breaches of trust that relate to abuse of intimacy lie. This is, and should be, the most brittle type of trust that there is. It is a deal killer, particularly when combined with an abundance of self-interest by the abuser.

Witness the trusted colleague or leader who exercises a highly cynical abuse of an “intimate” professional relationship to manipulate others for personal gain and prestige, and you’ll know how deep the Mariana Trench can be.

The Mariana Trench is the deepest, darkest part of the ocean. Things sunk there are lost.

This is the depth where lie the ravages of trust in cheating spouses and con artists in the long game.

It is the realm of the corporate sociopath revealed only too late.

Breaches of trust which abuse intimacy often take time. They rely on the most basic aspects of human relationships: friendship, common cause, and warmth. As such, the average person may disbelieve when a close friend is abusing intimate trust until it is far too late.

Thus, this type of sunken trust is very tough to salvage.

Intimate trust is like a diamond: extremely hard, often forged through pressure, sometimes exotically beautiful, but brittle…

…once bent, it breaks.

I don’t see a way to recover this sort of trust, but I am open to suggestions.

So what?

Why does this stuff matter?

Because we deal in trust as a currency every day of our lives. We do it in personal and professional relationships. We do it through our brands and our corporations.

I illustrate these four depths only to provide the reader with a perspective on how damaging the breaches of different kinds of trust can be.

If you haven’t noticed it yet, let me put this last: Breaches of trust related to what is knowable and transparent–reliability, for instance–are much easier to recover from than those related to what is concealed and largely unknowable–the selfish or cynical disposition of an individual or a company.

Don’t sink trust, and know when trust is sunk too deep.

I’d enjoy your thoughts and reflections on this topic.

2 replies
  1. Randy Conley
    Randy Conley says:


    I enjoyed your creative look at different breaches of trust and how deep they can run. What is also important to consider is the frequency of the behavior, the person’s intent, and the severity of the offending behavior. Trust can be one of the strongest forces holding a relationship together, and even breaches of intimacy can be repaired if both parties are willing to go through the rebuilding process…and most importantly, not committing the offending behavior again.

    Best regards,


    • Geoff Wilson
      Geoff Wilson says:

      Thanks for the thoughts, Randy. The rebuilding process in a breach of intimacy is such a wildcard because the breach incubates in a place that can’t be viewed. As you say, the offending behavior can never be repeated… That’s a good start!


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *