3 Truths about Trust and Betrayal from Maria Sharapova

For 11 years, tennis player Maria Sharapova has been #1 on Forbes’ list of highest paid female athletes. During a recent press conference, we learned for the last 10 of those years she’s been taking Meldonium, a medication the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has now banned as a performance-enhancing substance.

After testing positive for Meldonium in January after the 2016 Australian Open, Sharapova was provisionally banned by the International Tennis Federation, effective March 12.

According to CNN.com, her suspension could last 2-4 years.

As covered by the BBC, opinions are polarized on whether Sharapova’s infringement on WADA’s ban was intentional.

As Sharapova shared during a press conference, “It’s very important for you to understand that for 10 years this medicine was not on the banned list, and I was legally taking this medicine.”

Sharapova said she was prescribed Mildronate by her family doctor in 2006 for irregular electrocardiography (EKG) tests, a history of family diabetes, and magnesium deficiency. She said she was not aware that Mildronate was the same drug as the banned substance Meldonium.

“From the believers,” BBC said, “Maria has made a mistake. She is a good person. We could all have done it.”

And from the non-believers? They’re saying Sharapova was more aware of the implication of taking the drug than she claims.

As BBC reports, for the entirety of 2015, the drug was on WADA’s watch-list. In September of 2015, Sharapova received notice that effective January 1, 2016, the drug would be banned. The email WADA sent to her contained a hyperlink to a report including the following:

“Meldonium (Mildronate) was added [to the banned list] because of evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance.”

Sharapova has said she didn’t click the link in her email, and therefore had no knowledge of the ban on her prescribed drug. Whether or not the five-time grand slam winner took a banned substance intentionally or unintentionally, there’s no question: her trustworthiness has taken a hit. Even if she didn’t mean to, the perception is that she betrayed her profession.

And, here we are. One more time, another story of compromised trust is in the news. One more time, it’s catching our attention and reminding us of trust’s fragility. Unfortunately, we’ve grown accustomed to these stories. Hearing and reading about famous people’s lives derailed by breached trust and betrayal has become commonplace.

It serves as a reminder that any of us can lose our trustworthiness and all that we’ve built in an instant, through a single act or a single behavior. Lying. Cheating. Stealing.

Yet, what I’ve learned through 25 years of trust-focused research and trust building experience in organizations around the world:

The vast majority of betrayal occurs incrementally, through little behaviors that add up over time. 90% of the time, these behaviors play out unintentionally and even unconsciously, through routine habits people fall back into when they’re stressed or up against a wall. Taken individually, these behaviors may not seem so important. Yet over time, these ‘trust paper cuts’ can create an impact on people’s work and lives equivalent to a major betrayal of trust.

Another truth about trust and betrayal? We all have experience with it! We’ve all felt our trust being ‘chipped away at.’ And, whether we realize it or not – whether other people speak up about it or not – our subtle, fleeting behaviors have at some point negatively impacted trust in the relationships we most value.

We don’t mean to chip away at trust. Yet, we do. You do. I do. We all do. It’s simply a reality of human relationships.

But, I have good news. You can actually make a breach of trust work for you. You can gain from it. You make a choice – a choice to step into it, work through it, and raise your awareness about how trust really works in your relationships.

 To start, here are three truths about trust and betrayal that have been reinforced for me as I’ve watched Maria Sharapova’s story unfold:

1. When the breach of trust or betrayal occurs, however unintentionally, the first person we let down is ourselves. The bigger the betrayal or breach, the bigger the impact.

Sharapova is worth an estimated $195 million. Only a fraction is generated directly from winning tennis matches; the rest comes from lucrative sponsorships.

After news broke of Sharapova’s suspension, Nike, Tag Heuer, and Porshe suspended relationships with her. It’s anticipated Evian and Avon may follow suit. Sharapova’s personal brands – including a high end line of children’s candy – are expected to be affected.

The message is clear. Trustworthiness is an asset we cannot be effective without. The word betrayal suggests an act that severely breaks trust in relationships with others. Yet, when people betray another – even unconsciously, unintentionally – the first person they let down and betray is themselves. And, they personally suffer loss.

The loss of credibility.

The loss of character.

The loss of followership.

The loss of respect.

The loss of friendships.

The loss of confidence.

The loss of earning power.

The loss of what could have been.

At some point in time, we have all suffered a loss of trust in some way, shape, or form. Does this resonate with you? Have you ever lost an opportunity or connection because unknowingly or unintentionally, you broke trust? Let someone down? Disappointed them? Perhaps you overlooked a critical piece of information, misjudged a situation, failed to deliver as promised, or simply mis-stepped.

If you’ve let someone else down and your relationship diminished because of it, you’re not alone. Fortunately, when trust breaks down, there is a way to rebuild it.

2. Trust can’t be delegated. We each bear the responsibility to build and sustain our own trustworthiness.

Considering the impact of losing trust, reflect on ways you may be unintentionally risking your trustworthiness by putting it in others’ hands. Where might you be overly trusting in others? Yes, we all need to trust in and rely on others. But, when we overly trust in others, overly rely on them, we run the risk of letting ourselves down and potentially being betrayed.

Sharapova appears to have relied on her doctor to keep tabs on WADA’s banned substance list. Yet, there was perhaps nothing more critical to her ability to compete than not taking banned substances.

 This story provides an opportunity for us all to assess where we may be overly trusting in others and perhaps risking our own trustworthiness. Consider critical pieces of information you may not be getting or addressing. Reports ‘from the field’ you ought to take a vested interest in reviewing. Challenging conversations you should prepare for and engage. Signs and indicators of vulnerable trust you need to pay attention to.

Trust begins with each one of us. No one else, no matter their expertise or experience, can be the ‘keeper’ of our trustworthiness.

3. Betrayal can be a gift and a teacher, if we allow it to be.

The impact of the breach of trust and betrayal can rock us to our core. It never feels good. We may feel as if we have no control over others or the circumstance. Yet, we always have control over how we choose to respond.

We may become fixated on the impact of the betrayal. Become the victim who can’t let go of what was ‘done’ to us. Or, we may slip into rationalizing defending, and justifying our own behavior. We may seek to distance ourselves from what others perceive we have done to them.

Alternatively, we can choose to heal. Embrace the pain of broken trust, lean into it, work through it, heal from it, and learn from it.

To guide the process of healing, we can ask ourselves,

  • What happened and what is the impact? Acknowledge the situation and how it impacted you, your work, and life. Give yourself permission to allow feelings to surface. You may feel anything from stunned, outraged, and frustrated, to anxious, unsettled, and isolated. You may feel loss of confidence or experience confusion. When you acknowledge and honor your feelings, you liberate yourself to take a step forward.
  • How did this happen? Consider the incremental steps that contributed to the break down. Ask yourself, what role did I play to create this outcome? Where might I have trusted others too much…and myself not enough? Or, vice versa? What core needs did I over look? Where did my behavior become out of tune with my intentions?
  • What deeper lesson can I learn about myself, my priorities, my relationships, and my support system? Could it be I’ve not gathered the right people around me to help me be honest with myself and stay on course? To hold me accountable? Might I have unintentionally discouraged people from speaking truth to me? Are there signs and indicators I see now?
  • Where can I offer forgiveness and compassion to myself and others? When you deny yourself the opportunity to heal from betrayal, you only betray yourself further. You rob yourselves of the vital life force within you. Ask yourself, what do I need to forgive myself and others for? What needs to be said and done for me to let go and move forward? How can I leverage the lessons and insights I’ve gained about myself, about others, and about life?

In my work with leaders, teams, and organizations around the world, people tell me again and again: while they would not wish to live through the pain of a significant break down of trust or betrayal again, they are grateful for the lessons and insights gained.

The experience positively shaped their next steps, their futures, and their lives.

Should you find yourself in a situation where others perceive you have broken their trust – or your trust has taken a real hit – I invite you to allow your experience to work for you, rather than against you. Dig in. Ask yourself thoughtful questions, compassionately.

Mine the breakdown for insights about how you can navigate life, through relationships, more effectively.

Yours in trust,

Michelle Reina

[photo courtesy of Derek Hotham via Flickr.]

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