Trust and distrust – they’re not mutually exclusive. How to cultivate trust in strained working relationships.

Published on April 4, 2017

How many times have you heard someone say of a person, team or organisation that there's no trust... and that's the end of the story? The weight of distrust hangs heavily in the air and you're left with the sense that you're unlikely to hear the happy ending of a good relationship, thriving business, or positive culture for this particular tale. 

But low trust or a perceived absence of trust is not the end of the story. Part of our extraordinary capacity as human beings is that we can prime for trust, even in the face of distrust. Trust and distrust can co-exist. Here's how we know this.

Trust is associated with the reward system of our brain and takes place in the positive, social part of our brain. It feels good to trust and we tend to cooperate more when we feel trust. As a species, we’re wired for this, and it's vital for functioning work environments.

Distrust, in contrast, is associated with the brain area of uncertainty, and resides in the more primitive parts of our brain linked to fear and strong negative emotions. It's quick to activate and we tend to withdraw from social interaction, including conversation and information sharing. This is clearly dysfunctional in work environments.

Now here's the twist in the story of trust/distrust that I found amazing as I immersed myself in the field of Conversational Intelligence® with Judith E. Glaser:

According to Associate Professor Angelika Dimoka, a neuroscientist at Temple University's Fox School of Business, the trust networks in our brain can be activated at the same time as our distrust networks - even with respect to one relationship. So trust and distrust are not binary. They actually co-exist.

What all of this means is that trust is not necessarily something that is broken, never to be repaired. It’s not the end of the story. We can re-activate trust in strained relationships.

This twist in story does come with a challenge though: because distrust exists in the more primitive part of our brain, it's quicker to activate than the other cognitive areas of our brain, including where trust resides. But in a complex world of work it's also costly and unhealthy to let it reign. That's why it's important to minimise feelings of distrust and cultivate feelings of trust.

How do we do this?

Here are five steps that will set you on your path to a trust/distrust story with a better ending:

1) Remember that our brains are built to trust. We all experience psychological or emotional pain throughout our lives, but the vast majority of humans continues to live in connection with others despite this. We are remarkably adaptive, especially when it comes to meeting the core human need for connection.

2) Consider your intention in the relationship/situation, aligned with your values. Think about how you want to behave and the impact you want to have at work.

A common intention amongst my clients is to have positive working relationships based on respect. They're motivated to treat people how they would like to be treated.

One client however, had been in a heightened distrust state for some time, so his stress levels were elevated from always being in protect mode and his wellbeing was being impacted. His intention was more self-oriented - to stop the downward relationship spiral for the sake of his own wellbeing - but it provided ample motivation for him to find a way to partner with those he had experienced low trust with.

3) Increase transparency and decrease uncertainty by seeking to understand other's maps of reality, and in the process contain distrust.

An executive team I worked with were in a highly political and critical business situation, with the utmost uncertainty: would the business continue to exist or not. Stress levels were understandably high and with no CEO on the team, each executive was viewing the situation and possible future states through their own lens. They were operating from their unique protective behavioural styles, some more destructive than others.

By facilitating a high transparency conversation that revealed each executive's view, a broader map of reality emerged. I still recall one leader's comment: "I feel better just having heard all of that". That simple statement actually revealed something essential for him to be able to continue to lead effectively: his distrust networks had quietened so he was able to operate from the executive part of his brain. That is, he was able to access his wisdom, insight, strategic thinking, empathy, foresight, and complex decision-making capacities. As you can imagine, those capacities were in high demand for this team!

But transparency is not something you can demand. It comes from how you approach the trust cultivating conversations, and the next two steps will help you with this.

4) Apply the Conversational Intelligence essential: listen to connect, rather than judge, accept or reject.

So often we are listening to someone with an expectation of what they'll say, we have a bias, or we're thinking about what we'll say next. Listening to connect takes the focus off ourselves and on to others. After all, we know our own map of reality, it is others' maps of reality we're trying to understand to decrease uncertainty and minimise distrust.

When I share this C-IQ essential with clients I often observe a shift in them as they ponder what it means. Their breathing slows, their shoulders drop and there's a softening in their eyes. It’s like I'm witnessing the physical transformation that accompanies brain activity moving away from fight/flight networks towards trust networks where the capacities I mentioned above reside.

5) Pair listening to connect with the C-Q gem I shared in my last article: ask questions for which you have no answers.

I’ll conclude with one more gift from my favourite book from many years ago, Margot Cairnes' "Approaching the Corporate Heart". You have responsibility for 50% of every relationship you are in.

As you navigate your various relationships at work, may your 50% be focused on using your extraordinary human capacity to cultivate trust, so that you, your relationships, and your business can be a story of flourishing.


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