Shortly after I founded Strategic Leadership Development International in 2001, I began to notice a pattern which repeated itself with many of my clients.
Typically I would be engaged to help their business overcome a serious issue which was holding back productivity. “We have a communications issue,” they would tell me. Or perhaps they were dealing with a slow decision-making process or problems with customer service.
Needless to say, one of my first endeavors was trying to get to the root of the problem. And that’s when I started noticing a recurring pattern.
As I would peel back the layers of the onion, way down underneath I would inevitably find either unrecognized, unaddressed, or unresolved issues of trust. Then I noticed something else.
Once we rooted out distrust, the other problems began to resolve themselves. With trust re-established, communication opened up, collaboration expanded, and candid feedback became safe. With improved communication, collaboration, and feedback, the organization became healthy enough to overcome what had been holding it back.
Before long, I was speaking often and widely about trust, which led eventually to my book entitled Leadership and the Power of Trust. Because I talked so much about trust, leaders would occasionally ask me to do a trust audit of their organization.
In making these audits, I quickly discovered that the fastest way to perform them was to forego trying to measure the level of trust directly. Instead, what I learned to measure was the level of fear and anxiety in the organization. Here’s why that approach worked.
High Fear, Low Trust
It’s impossible for us to trust while simultaneously running states of fear or high anxiety. Fear and trust are mutually exclusively. Thus, to the degree that fear and acute anxiety are present in an organization, trust is in low supply.
I came to that realization from observation and anecdotal evidence. More recently, however, neurological research has shown that there is a physiological reason why fear and trust are mutually exclusive.
Trust, we now know, is formed in the prefrontal cortex and is closely linked to a wonderful neuro-chemical called oxytocin. Oxytocin gives us a sense of oneness with others. It fosters the bonding between mother and newborn. It accounts for esprit de corps in groups which feel tightly bound with one another.
When we feel threatened, however, as in times of fear or moments of great anxiety, another chemical is released which diminishes the role of the prefrontal cortex in decision-making. This chemical is cortisol.
When we feel threatened, cortisol disperses through the entire body and remains in the bloodstream for hours, even a day or so. What we now know is that in its presence, the prefrontal cortex recedes in its influence. In extreme cases, the prefrontal cortex can be shut down almost entirely.
Now, the prefrontal cortex is where we do our highest level of thinking. It’s where we process abstractions and form strategies. It’s also, as we’ve noted, where we bond with others and form communities of trust.
Nature has apparently wired our bodies so that when there is a threat, the deliberations of the prefrontal cortex are set aside. In settings of great danger, we don’t need an array of possible strategies from which to choose. We don’t need a lot of abstract thought. We need to act. And immediately.
Therefore nature provides a chemical switch in the form of cortisol that suspends the work of the prefrontal cortex in moments of severe threat. But with the prefrontal cortex in diminished in its influence, the part of our brain which engenders trust is also pushed aside.
The High Cost of Fear
Organizations which are fraught with fear and anxiety or which are run by heavy-handed, threatening styles of management physically cannot maintain a high-trust environment.
Experience alone has long taught us that trust languishes in the presence of fear. Now we know scientifically why that’s true.
Leaders who rely on threats, fear, and intimidation to spur performance not only give distrust fruitful soil in which to root itself. By triggering continuous releases of cortisol, their intimidating style diminishes the work of the prefrontal cortex.
Thus, at the same time that their actions are disrupting trust, the fearful state which they create is also closing down the brain center which performs high-level thinking and strategizing, Performance and productivity inevitably suffer.
Lesson learned? To get the best from people as a leader, keep trust in good repair. And to build a resilient defense around trust, keep fear and anxiety at bay.