The Two Most Powerful Words to Rebuild Trust

Trust MeterCourtney, a new manager on my team, learned a valuable leadership lesson this week – despite your best intentions, sometimes your behavior inadvertently erodes trust with another person.

In this particular case, Courtney didn’t do anything “wrong.” She needed to make some changes to work assignments in her team and she followed all the right steps: analyze the situation, consider the pros and cons of the various options, make a decision, inform all the relevant stakeholders, and implement the changes. However, one of the people affected by the change felt blindsided and was not hesitant in expressing her unhappiness and frustration to Courtney. This was Courtney’s first major leadership interaction with this colleague, and despite her best efforts, she had started this relationship in a trust deficit.

At that point in time Courtney had a choice in how she responded. She could dig in her heels and respond to her colleague with defensiveness and justifications, because after all, she hadn’t done anything wrong. Or, she could recognize her actions had inadvertently eroded trust and confidence with a colleague and address it head on by saying “I’m sorry” – the two most powerful words in rebuilding trust.

There are several reasons why saying “I’m sorry” is one of the critical steps in rebuilding trust:

    • It shows remorse – Consider the difference between saying “I apologize” versus “I’m sorry.” The word “apologize” is a verb and it means “to offer an apology or excuse for some fault, insult, injury, or failure.” The word “sorry” is an adjective and means “feeling regret, compunction, sympathy.” Notice the difference in personal feeling ascribed to saying “I’m sorry” versus “I apologize?” Saying “I’m sorry” shows that you own your behavior and you feel bad for how it affected the other person.
    • It demonstrates humility – People with humility don’t think less of themselves, they just think about themselves less. Saying “I’m sorry” shows that you place a higher level of importance on the person you offended than trying to defend, excuse, or rationalize your behavior. Humble leaders are trustworthy leaders, there’s no two ways about it.
    • It displays your vulnerability – Without vulnerability there is no trust. By its very definition, trust acknowledges that you are vulnerable to someone else in some aspect of your relationship, but you’re willing to have faith (trust) in the other person not to take advantage of you. Colleen Barrett, President Emerita of Southwest Airlines, likes to say that people respect you for your competence and skills, but they love you for your vulnerabilities.

So what choice did Courtney make? She chose to say “I’m sorry.” Not only did it smooth over the situation at hand, it was a tremendous “trust booster” in the relationship with her colleague. Sometimes we erode trust with others without even realizing it. If you find yourself in that situation, consider the power of saying “I’m sorry” to rebuild trust.

P.S. Courtney gave me permission to share her story. In fact, it was such a powerful learning for her that she suggested I write about it in my blog.

4 Comments on “The Two Most Powerful Words to Rebuild Trust

  1. I agree with you 100%, Randy, about the importance of these two words in almost any relationship. The movie line “Love means you never have to say you’re sorry” did us all a disservice. Thanks for setting the record straight!

    • Hi Elizabeth. The saying should be “Love means being quick to say you’re sorry,” don’t you think? Thanks for your comments.


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