Trust and Betrayal: The Art of Word-Keeping

“It’s not personal, it’s just business.”

That has to be one of the most untrue expressions I’ve ever heard. All businesses continuously impact the lives of their stakeholders… personally.

No doubt if you have worked for more than a couple of years, you’ve been disappointed by a colleague, client, supplier, employer or employee who has given you ‘their word’ only to fail to follow through. This has happened to me, and it’s a terrible experience. Were my expectations clearly communicated? Is it petty to defend them? Is it even worth it? And what of the loss of trust and relationship that follows? How do I remain co-operative, or even civil, especially if we continue to work together?



Elangovan and Shapiro (1998) define workplace betrayal as follows:

1.      It is voluntary or volitional and those who are to be trusted either lack the desire to conform to expectations of the trustor or choose to violate those expectations;

2.      It involves a violation of pivotal expectations that are significant to the nature of the relationship between the parties;

3.      Both parties must be mutually aware of but need not accept the expectations of the trustor so that there is no uncertainty about the intent of the person being relied upon;

4.      Betrayal behavior involves a violation of personal expectations; and

5.      The betrayal has the potential to harm the wellbeing of the trustor.



In my recent case, all 5 conditions were met. It’s a vulnerable position to be in. I think for me the hardest part is the shock that someone that I really trusted could simply walk away from an agreement. So I started to think of the advice I might give to someone in my situation. Here are some tips for managing disappointment when you feel betrayed at work:

1.      Don’t Judge the Heart: This is hard. We all think of ourselves as people of our word. But if that were true, then no one would ever experience betrayal. So the first thing to do is to recognize the humanity in the other person. The other person may or may not have had malicious or sinister intent, and they certainly see the story differently than you do. In any case, only God can judge the heart. Focus on your experience of their behaviour, not their intent.

2.      Stand Your Ground: Being gracious is not the same thing as being weak. Communicate the behaviour that has caused a breakdown of trust. Clarify the expectations that you had, and any ongoing consequences of moving forward with that unmet expectation.

3.      Carry It, but Don’t Own It: If someone has made a commitment to you and not kept it, then it’s their mistake, not yours. You may have to bear some consequences for someone else’s actions, but you don’t have to own those consequences as though you caused them. Bear it, but don’t wear it.

4.      Document Your Experience: Best case scenario, this is for your personal therapy. Worst case, you may need it for a legal proceeding. In any case, writing down your experience externalizes it, and may make it easier for you to manage emotionally (yes, emotions are involved in business). Plus, it will help you to let go of the emotion so that it doesn’t become a filter that hinders your other relationships.

5.      Legal Action is a Last Resort: The UAE provides some of the best laws in the world for enforcing verbal and electronic codes of conduct, but filing a court case is a concession of failure… it means that reconciliation is impossible, and this is rarely true. Rebuilding relationship is a tough choice, but it’s the higher ground. If negotiations don’t work, then try mediation, or arbitration. Only if those options have been explored should a legal option be pursued.

6.      Forgiveness: It’s not for their sake, it’s for yours. Focusing on the past is a distraction from your preferred future. If at all possible, take that emotional energy and refocus yourself on your future by letting go of the offence. This does not mean that you stop standing your ground, it only means that you let go of your emotional attachment to the outcome, which allows you to manage the impact with more clarity.



Have you ever heard that the best revenge is a life well lived? Well, the best response to being betrayed is building trust. Let your experience remind you that you don’t want to produce that experience for others. Trust is a currency in business. Steven Covey’s (2006) Speed of Trust is an excellent resource for learning how trust is built. He proposes four core principles:

1.      Integrity: Integrity is when there is no difference between what you intend to do, and what you actually do. Kousez and Posner (2003) have conducted studies on tens of thousands of leaders in almost every culture, and they found that the number one expected quality of leadership is credibility, and the number one absent quality of leadership is credibility. Start by doing what you say you will do.

2.      Intent: You should seek for the benefit of others. This is goodwill in character. John Maxwell (2007) once said that the difference between motivation and manipulation is the intended beneficiary. If you intend to benefit the other person, or to benefit mutually, it’s motivation. But if your intent is to benefit yourself, it’s manipulative, no matter what it is. Again, only you and God know your heart, so keep your intentions clean.

3.      Capabilities: This is your blend of knowledge, skills, experience, talent, and attitude. These should be commensurate with what you promote of yourself. Don’t say you can do something that you can’t do. You should speak from experience, knowledge, and education, this builds trust. Henry Mintzberg (2004) notes that confidence exceeding competence breeds arrogance. Know yourself, and don’t overpromise.

4.      Results: You should deliver what you say you will deliver. Don’t overpromise… but don’t under-deliver either. You should strive with all of your capabilities and your best intent to fulfill your integrity by delivering what you commit to deliver. Remember, we judge ourselves by our intentions, but others judge us by our actions. It’s what you actually do that matters, not what you intended.

I was betrayed by a close work friend once which cost me a tremendous amount of time and money. He made a promise to me that he never kept. My family went into financial crisis due to the issue. At the time, another colleague of mine asked if I would ever make that mistake again. And honestly, I believe I will… trusting someone is not a mistake, it is an expression of character, just as much so as betraying someone. What we do comes from who we are. I’m optimistic, therefore I trust.

If you know someone that needs to read this article, share it. If you need any advice on how to manage a betrayal in your environment, write a comment, or send me a message. And remember: all business is personal.


Caldwell, C., Davis, B., & Devine, J. A. (2009). Trust, faith, and betrayal: Insights from management for the wise believer. Journal of Business Ethics, 84, 103-114.

Covey, S. M. (2006). The speed of trust: The one thing that changes everything. Simon and Schuster.

Elangovan, A. R., & Shapiro, D. L. (1998). Betrayal of trust in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 23(3), 547-566.

Kouzes, J. M. and B. Z. Posner (2003). Credibility: how leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it. San Fransisco, CA, Jossey-Bass.

Mintzberg, H. (2004). Managers, not MBAs: A hard look at the soft practice of managing and management development. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Maxwell, J. C. (2007). The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: Follow them and people will follow you. Thomas Nelson Inc.