Trust and Betrayal at Work

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What do we mean by “trust” at work? Think about a specific colleague, past or present, that you completely trust. Now try to figure out why you selected that person. What does the person do (or not do) that has created such a trusting relationship? When participants in collaboration workshops are asked that question, here are some answers they frequently give.

A trusted coworker will . . .

Keep information confidential. Meet agreed-upon deadlines.
Produce the results you expect. Share information that you need.
Provide honest information. Give credit where it is due.
Discuss problems directly Support you during tough times.
Not talk behind your back. Demonstrate competence.
Do their share of the work. Warn you about potential problems.
Not steal your ideas. Meet their commitments.
Include you in appropriate activities. Help keep you out of trouble.

If you want to be perceived as trustworthy, those are the standards you should strive to meet. And you have to meet them consistently. But what do you do when someone else betrays your trust?


When you feel that someone has violated your trust, the natural reaction is disappointment and anger. But before you destroy the relationship forever, consider taking these four steps:

1. Check your assumptions.
“Betrayal” implies that someone either intentionally did something that you did not expect or failed to do something that you did expect. But before you decide to angrily attack or quietly wreak revenge, take a moment to examine your assumptions.

If someone failed to give proper credit for your work, are you sure it was malicious? Could it have been an unintentional oversight? If a coworker shared confidential information, did you clearly state that it was not to be discussed? If you were not included in your friend’s important project, could it be that you don’t have the skills that are needed?

If your assumptions may not be valid, then it might not have been an intentional betrayal.

2. Initiate a dialogue.
If the relationship is important to you, either personally or organizationally, then it may well be worth saving. Besides, the other party may have no idea that you feel betrayed. And you do need to check out those assumptions. So initiate a conversation in a non-attacking manner.

Starting with a question is often a good approach. For example, “I was surprised not to be included on the new project team. Could you tell me how members were selected?” Or “I thought we agreed that you would have the report to me before the meeting. What happened?” Or “I expected that salary information to be kept confidential. How come you shared it with Tom?”

Really listen to the answer you receive, then see if you can reach an understanding.

3. Ask for what you want.
To resolve the current problem, or to keep something similar from happening in the future, you may need to make your own expectations clear by asking for what you want.

For example, “I would really like to be part of the next product team. How do you think I can make that happen?” Or “Next time, I need for you to give me at least two days notice if the report is going to be late.” Or “In the future, I will try to be very clear about information that should be kept confidential. But if you are not sure, please ask me.”

Often, this sort of conversation can resolve the issue with few hard feelings.

4. Engage in watchful waiting.
Trust develops over time, so if you feel you have been betrayed, recovery may take awhile. Wait and see how your colleague handles similar situations in the future.

Hopefully, you will find that the person actually can be trusted. But if not, then you will have learned a valuable lesson. Although you still need to have a professional working relationship, you now know the limits of your ability to trust this person.