Rebuilding Trust

Summary: Historic arguments, unspoken wounds, disagreements over decisions can can all trigger loss of trust among family members. Without intervention, loss of trust can be catastrophic to a family business. When something causes you to lose trust in a family member, you may start to doubt their decision-making abilityor withhold important information from them. Your communication with them may deteriorate. And that, in turn, will almost certainly derail both your business and your family. But trust is not a binary concept (either you have it or you don’t). You may not be able to repair it completely, but you can make it better. Which is essential for the long-term health of your family business and business family. Banyan partner Vlad Barbieri shares practical advice for rebuilding trust before, during, and after reconciliation sessions to help family owners be able to make decisions together.

Loss of trust. It’s one of the most common challenges in the families we work with. Whether spoken or unspoken, a history of broken trust can derail the owners’ ability to make good decisions together. After all, who wants to come to a decision-making table nursing a long-festering wound or fundamentally distrusting a family member. But the consequences of not dealing openly with a loss of trust can be profound – when family members don’t trust one another enough, they will be unable to make good decisions together for both the business and the family. Loss of trust is like an acid dripping on family relationships – little by little it eats its way through what was once a strong bond.

But people often have a misconception about the trust in families. No, it might not be possible to undo past hurts and damage, but “trust” doesn’t have to be a binary concept (you have trust or you don’t). In our work, we help families see that they can improve or rebuild enough trust to allow your family to move on, at least enough to be able to make good decisions together. If you intend to continue to own assets together, this is essential.

We’ve seen families successfully confront whatever led to broken trust so that they can begin to get to a more constructive place. But you need to have a strategy to do this well. (This isn’t something that you can just delegate to a well-meaning “neutral” family member—it’s essential to have a trusted, experienced facilitator.) In our experience, you need a process that involves a set of interactions and meetings among those willing to rebuild trust. Here’s how we’ve seen trust reconciliation sessions work:

Before the meetings:
  1. The facilitator should meet with the parties separate in advance to get a better understanding of the underlying issue. The goal of these prep sessions is to come to clarity on what the purpose of the full-group meeting is. What are you trying to accomplish? The facilitator should then lay out the specific objective of the next meeting in advance.
  2. Agree on a meeting structure and ground rules. This should include an agenda and guiding principles or code of conduct for the meeting itself (such as “no swearing”, “take a break if you need to cool down”, “No interrupting”, “Allow facilitator to facilitate, don’t hijack the meeting” and so on.)
During the meetings:
  1. State upfront why you are there and what success would look like. Make sure everyone is on the same page about what the meeting(s) should accomplish.
  2. Ask the parties in the room to explain what specifically led to broken trust. This should not be a conversation of accusations and anger (though emotions are natural). The goal is to get out in the open what has been festering for too long.
  3. Make sure that everyone has a chance to be heard – and, in return, makes a genuine effort to listen.
  4. Use language that grounds concerns in the impact of the actions, not sweeping characterizations. Don’t default to “You always…” or “You never…” Be specific about what actions led to the feelings of broken trust. “When you did this, this is how it made me feel. When you said this, this is the consequence it had.”
  5. Don’t be afraid of silence. Broken trust is complicated. Not only are there two sides to every story, but each person might need time to both process their own feelings and their new understanding of the others’ feelings. Silence, if reflective, is important, even if it feels uncomfortable.
  6. Check your body language. Convey to the others that you are engaged in the process. Folded arms or doodling while others are talking signals that you are not open to what they are saying. Ask your facilitator to check everyone on body language throughout.
  7. Agree on how you will choose to behave from now on. If you can come to terms with new “rules of conduct” for family members

Even after you rebuild trust, don’t take for granted that you will easily be able to maintain it at that level. There will be steps back! Learn from the process above, pick the elements that were more impactful in your case and continue to apply them when needed.

It’s unrealistic to expect that you can wash away past anger or hurt in one (or even more) trust rebuilding sessions. But that doesn’t mean they won’t have value. At a minimum, if you better understand why another family member has been harboring those feelings, you can do your best to not exacerbate or trigger them in the future. Context is helpful.

But an air-clearing session can take a lot of hot air out of the relationships. We worked with one family that had been unable to make effective decisions together for years in large part because one owner had built up anger at her brother, who was responsible for firing her child from the business. “My brother doesn’t want my children to succeed in the family business,” she told us. In our session together, both parties explained what had led to the conflict and how it had affected their families over the years. There was, as is almost always the case, more to the story on both sides than the other had realized. The brother who was running the company was able to explain to his sister the things he had already been doing to ensure that her other children who were employed by the business were succeeding. Once we helped air out the feelings on both sides, they were able to agree to put it in the past.

But crucially, they also agreed on a more constructive path forward, which involved better communication among the sibling owners and a defined career path for family members in the business.

Better – not perfect – is the goal. You can’t put a timeline on how long it might take to rebuild trust. But you can make steps toward it if you are willing to confront what led to the trust issue in the first place and agree on a better path forward.