Do any of these situations sound familiar?
You sent an email acknowledging your team’s great work and offering some ideas about how to make the report preparation process next month easier on everyone. The email triggers frustration from team members and a sense that you are displeased with their work. Hours are lost to emotional back channel conversations before you can regroup and clear the air.
Your organization introduced new software and many folks are struggling to get comfortable with it, in spite of the training that was offered. You circulate a memo requiring staff to attend a mandatory training; you want to help but you can’t keep pace with all the inquiries about how to use the new tool. Someone peeks into your office and says, “You don’t catch bees with vinegar.” You feel defeated and disregarded.
During a meeting you hear comments that seem to suggest your team isn’t doing a good job. You get defensive and the tone of the discussion takes a sharp unproductive turn. You learn later that the comments weren’t intended as criticism. They were observations to get some perspective.
More than likely you routinely experience some version of these situations in your work conversations. It is common. They are all examples of trust breaking down. It happens because distrust and trust reside in different places in our brain and these situations triggered distrust before trust ever had a chance. These scenarios happen because of a powerful brain phenomenon Judith Glaser calls an “amygdala highjack”.
In her book, Conversational Intelligence, How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, Judith explains that the amygdala is the oldest and most primitive part of our brain. It takes on the job of protection and keeping us safe. When it perceives information as threatening it triggers our defenses in .07 seconds. Then the neurotransmitter cortisol starts firing, blocking access to the pre-frontal cortex, otherwise known as the executive brain, where creativity and capacity for our besting thinking is stored.
Let’s rewind… In the first situation you send an email acknowledging your team’s great work and you explain that you want to explore with them their ideas for making the report writing process this month easier for everyone. You invite them to talk about what works well in the process, where there are gaps and what ideas they have for making it easier. Together the team finds a few options to experiment with in the next round of reports.
In the second situation you connect with the staff who are struggling with the new software and explore with them what specifically is challenging, and you ask them what support would help them. You agree together about the way you are going to work to get them the help they need.
In the third situation, you listen to your colleagues without making negative judgements about what you are hearing. You commit to stay objective and curious about everything you hear. You ask your colleagues to say more about their experience. This gives you more information and a better understanding of the situation before you jump to faulty conclusions in the way you respond.
In each of these “rewind” scenarios the leader’s actions spoke language that makes the amygdala feel safe. As a result, instead of cortisol, the hormone and neurotransmitter oxytocin is released. It creates feelings of wellbeing and opens the pathways in our brain to the pre-frontal cortex where trust thrives.
Distrust is a fear of sharing what’s on our mind for fear that we’ll feel small or that information we share will be used against us in some way. It’s a feeling that “I don’t believe we can work together, much less understand each other”. It’s a belief that we see the world too differently to be able to connect. When we experience distrust, our thoughts and actions typically take the form of negative judging, withholding or controlling information, and limiting the conversation. Trust is confidence that we won’t be harmed physically, emotionally or professionally. It’s a feeling that “I believe we can work together and we are stronger working together than working on our own”. It’s also a belief that “you have my best interests at heart and that you care about me.” When we experience trust, our thoughts and actions convey that we are in this together and will support each other’s success.
“Words create worlds”, according to Judith. What makes the dance between distrust and trust so important in leadership is that conversations are a leaders’ primary tool in trade. We now know as a result of two plus decades of neuroscience research that one measure of a leader’s strength is our capacity to be trusting ourselves and to create conversations where trust thrives for others. It’s not an easy dance because the amygdala resets continuously and its purpose in protecting never diminishes. Human beings are hard wired for “flight or fight” as part of our instinct to survive. And fortunately we are hard wired for growth too, making it possible to successfully dance when we bring our consciousness and our attention to the way we make words work for us.
Here are three ways to experiment to expand trust building through your leadership. The first way is to listen with only the agenda of understanding not fixing, solving or taking action. Come to each conversation to understand what is on the mind of the other person or other people and explore with them what they need, what are their ideas and what they want to do. When we make a connection in with others in our listening, we build a safe space for more discussion and trust grows in that space.
The second way is to be curious with questions or prompts to open discussion. Come to each conversation with a few questions you feel comfortable asking then step back and listen. Questions I find effective are “can you tell me more about that”, “what’s on your mind” or “what’s important to you about that”? When we ask questions to get other perspective, the answers bring us together to work on next steps and trust grows in that.
The third way is to explore a few options for action and decide together which action seems to be the best one or the right one to take at that time. When we build on each other’s ideas and develop actions that reflect our collective ideas, trust grows in that. Start with the approach that interests you the most and see what happens for you and the others in the conversation. Building trust is like learning a new dance. It will feel like you have two left feet and it’s hard to find your rhythm. The more you experiment and reflect on what you learned, the more you will find your footing to more consistently show up in your leadership in ways that build trust. You can trust me on that!
Managance Consulting & Coaching is on a mission to ignite passion and energize opportunity in nonprofit work places. Denice Hinden, PhD, PCC, President and her team inspire leaders and teams to their next level of leadership and develop more trusting “we-centered” organizational cultures with transformational leadership development and engaging strategic thinking. Denice is Certified in Conversational Intelligence®. Judith Glaser is the founder and CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc., and the Chairman of The Creating We Institute. We are honored to partner with Judith to bring you our 2017-2018 Leveling Up Leadership Blog.