Why your boss doesn’t trust you…

December 3 2007 day 53 - When stress does a nu...

My last post mentioned fear as a reason many change managers do not communicate well or soon enough. But fear is much more insidious than simply during change – it is the roadblock to trust in your organization.

It is amazing what the human mind and body can do. During times of distress it can shift blood from one area of the body to another more crucial area almost instantly, it can increase the effectiveness of our muscles and make us stronger for brief moments, it can focus our minds with laser like precision, and during times of extreme stress can make us completely forget nearly everything about experiences. And while many times these autonomous reactions serve us in very protective ways, they can also undermine positive outcomes. It can make us blind to other possibilities, unable to release a certain perspective, defensive in conversation, and illogical.

Whether they be physical stressors or psychological ones, the root of what causes these reactions is fear. In many physical examples, the fear could be of injury or even death.  In the psychological instances the cause of fear is much harder to pinpoint and what is more complex, sometimes the fear is self-manifested. Now, whether the fear is justifiable or not makes not one bit of difference to how our brain acts.  Fear, is fear, is fear; and our brains react the same way to fear regardless of the stimuli.

In a professional setting most fear is psychological fear.  The trouble is psychological fear is not external, so you can’t point to something and say “that is fear”.  Fear is internal, something causes fear in us and as such, is self-created.  Which is to say, when I am afraid there is something in me that fears the external stimuli. Perhaps it is the fear that I cannot handle what is about to come my way or perhaps it reminds us of something that contradicts our self-image.

That last one is important. This is often the source of defensiveness in most everyday professional conversations, a challenge to someone’s self-concept. As an example: I put forth an idea I worked hard on, someone says they think my idea is wrong, that means I am wrong, that my idea was stupid, that I was stupid, I do like to think of myself as a stupid person (self-concept), I am afraid I am stupid, I don’t like being reminded that I could be stupid, I don’t like that you reminded me I might be stupid, don’t call me stupid – issue your external response. Of course you can substitute any number of things you might be afraid of about yourself (unimportant, inexperienced, unlikeable, intolerant, disorganized, irresponsible, etc.) The fear no longer comes from someone actually calling you those things, but now comes from them reminding you of your fear that you are one of those things you do not want to be.

Defenses in and of themselves are not bad, at some point in our life they probably served us well, and if we encounter a tiger they may still serve us, but when we are defending ourselves from our own fears rather than a real threat, fear is our biggest obstacle. Without getting too technical, fear and stress produce cortisol in the body. Cortisol is like the lime to the tequila of adrenaline – it sets the stage for action. Contrary to popular belief, the “rush” we get from certain experiences (the tingly feeling, butterflies, taut muscles, etc.) is caused by cortisol, not adrenaline. The negative aspect of cortisol is it is VERY closely associated with stress – the more stress or fear you feel, the more cortisol your body produces. Cortisol also diminishes trust in our external environment, so it is a self-feeding loop in defensive situations. (This is the reason taking a break sometimes is a good conflict strategy.)

Oxytocin (no, not the pain-killer Oxycontin), on the other hand, is a stress relieving hormone that counteracts or suppresses cortisol production. Have you ever been feeling tons of stress and then someone gives you a warm hug or a sincere compliment and it seems to dissipate?  That is caused by the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin, in recent years, has become strongly associated with trust, love, compassion, and personal connectedness.mUnfortunately, professional behavior and love are not always things talked about in the same sentence. And let’s face it, hugging is not something a lot of environments encourage in the wake of sexual harassment possibilities. Most environments, in fact, are breeding grounds for stress and fear, and thus almost encourage distrust. The more stress or fear I feel, the less likely I am to trust – trust you, trust myself, trust my organization, trust my leaders, etc. If I do not have trust it is hard to respect others or be honest. And so the cycle goes.

Whether my fear is about me or about you, again, makes no difference in how we react.  It DOES, however, still elicit a self-protective response.  In stressful situations people rarely point to a fear they have about themselves. Enter the Fundamental Attribution Error. When things go wrong to me, I attribute it to reasons outside of me (it’s not MY fault)- when they go wrong for you, then we attribute it to a reason in you (it is YOUR fault). This is why sometimes the message is conveyed that your boss does not trust you, or perhaps, that you feel you do not trust others. Sometimes it might be a fear about themselves (or yourself) you are protecting yourself from. Maybe I fear that I am an incompetent leader and if something goes wrong on my team, that confirms I am not a good leader so I act in defense of that fear by not trusting my employees to do a good job…so I micromanage, require copious amounts of check-ins, over-monitor, over-meeting, over-reviews, over-discussion, overly rely on consensus (when it does not make sense), avoid delegating, etc.

Fear is the enemy of trust. Both practically and biologically. And if we are really being self-aware, how much of that fear is about us instead of about them? Are we committing the Fundamental Attribution Error? Are we simply protecting ourselves from our own fears of being incompetent? Insignificant? Unlikeable? Trust and Fear are not mutually compatible, you have to choose one or the other. And yes, you can choose to be more trusting, but that means confronting and challenging your own fear about yourself first.  What is it you really fear about yourself and how is that standing in your way regarding trust of others?


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