Trust is Contaigious

Source: TRUST – At the Moment of Contact (Author: Judith E. Glaser)

Words are only 7% of the Trust Story

I was destined to be a child psychologist. I did my Research Fellowship in Child Development and was heading into a Ph.D. program in Human Behavior and Development – and then I had a change of mind.

I lived in Kansas at the time, and my husband Richard was getting his Ph.D. in Medicinal, Bio and Pharmaceutical Chemistry – and I took a job at the Bess Stone Center, a Center for Mentally Disabled Adults. On my first day at work, I was introduced to Larry; a 24-year-old mentally challenged adult. He was very tall and very thin. Perhaps the most striking feature of his appearance was the wide suspenders that held up his pants. His teeth protruded and his head was oversized.

“His name is Larry,” Mary Jean said to me. “He is 24 but has the mind of a 2-year-old.” He doesn't talk. He just grunts. As she spoke those words, his head tilted and I immediately knew he understood her harsh words. Larry looked different, and even though his outward appearance was unusual. It was clear that there was much wisdom that lay beneath Larry's surface, an important insight that I was about to learn.

Larry, who did not possess the ability to communicate through words, put his talents to work. He made an invention by inserting the 'foil' from the inside of a ketchup bottle top into a clothespin. Larry could gaze into the small foil 'rear view mirror' for a fully encompassing view of the world. He used his invention and attention to watch the man who came to polish our floors once a week. Larry watched the up-and-down motion in his mirror, and once his mind mapped the rhythm, he imitated floor polishing even when the polisher was not there.

I asked him if he wanted to try it out and sure enough, Larry polished the floors every day and became the best floor polisher ever. Then he took me outside and motioned with his arms that he wanted to polish the grass. After it clicked in, I realized he wanted to transfer his new found skills to learn to mow the grass. And he did. He became the best grass mower we had ever seen!

Larry's energy and passion for learning became contagious. Soon enough, everyone at the Bess Stone Center became alive in a new way. Bertha wanted to play the piano, and she did, in her own way. Albert wanted to have 'money in his pocket' and so Mary Jean gave him money to carry to the store for food shopping. Mark wanted to build a house, and so we gave him some wood to build a miniature house which upon its completion was donated by the Bess Stone Center to its 'sister home' for mentally disabled children. The local newspaper heard about the change at Bess Stone and wrote a feature story, which went on to greatly inspire our small town in Kansas.

Larry taught me about trust. Rather than see him as a ‘retarded adult’ with no capabilities to do much of anything, I saw him as a whole, creative human being. At the movement of contact, I experienced him as someone special, someone I wanted to get to know and understand, and someone of value.

Larry changed my life and from what evolved, I changed his. He was one of the reasons I wanted to understand more about how our minds work, how our brains work, and why we do what we do.

How Leader’s Lead

Today, through advances in neuroscience and the use of fMRI’s (Functional Magnetic Resonance Instruments), we are now able to see inside of the brains and minds of people while they are experiencing different emotions. What astounds scientists and practitioners alike is the dramatically different ‘brain landscape’ for people who are in fear states, compared to those who are in states of joy, happiness and trust. What this surprising difference in our brain's activity is showing us is so profound that it is changing the very foundation for how leaders lead.

Most leaders don’t realize that punishment and embarrassment used to get people to perform is not only an outdated strategy for employee motivation – it is a harmful strategy – with both short-term and long-term unexpected consequences.

Once a person has been triggered by fear – let’s say from an angry boss, a yelling, or merely a passive-aggressive or blaming boss who is embarrassing that person in front of colleagues – a cascade of neurochemicals starts in the lower brain – and literally spews into the rest of the brain – like someone was spray painting their brain! This cortisol bath sends messages to the other parts of the brain and tells it to move into hyper-gear to protect the person from harm, and as a result more neurotransmitters go into action and work in concert to do what they need to do to protect us – this is all hardwired into our DNA as part of our survival instincts.

This triggered reaction is not momentary – it is sustained over a half-life of 13 hours or a full life of 26 hours. If the leader continues to irritate, embarrass or outrage the employee during the next period of time, the cortisol and associated activation of the neurochemical highways of the brain continues its cascade and the person is now not just in a moment of fear, but in a prolonged state of fear – named by scientists as an Amygdala Hijack.

Parts of the brain needed for building trust, for thinking clearly, for empathy, and getting along with others are now closing down and the person is being driven into strategies for self-protection. This may include talking with other people who can console them or help them think through what just happened so they can make sense of it and work through their bad feelings. This person needs to find solace with others to alleviate their fear and pain – and so begins their journey to find comfort from others who care about their well-being.

A Change of Heart

What quells the brain’s fear state is trust, empathy and support. When someone shows concern for our state of mind, or show care for our feelings, our chemistry makes a shift. We become calmer, we can gain composure, and we can think in a constructive way.

The hormone oxytocin is a neurotransmitter associated with bonding behaviors. New scientific research is suggesting that oxytocin could be the most prevalent hormone in the heart and the brain, and could be the critical driving force behind our need for social contact. This hormone’s power is one of the newest discoveries in neuroscience and may explain why isolation is so painful (lack of oxytocin), why loners die young, and why rejection is more painful at times than physical pain. Some scientists call oxytocin the ‘cuddle hormone’ because of its affect on making us feel cared for, and its power to create and restore a feelings of well being is as good as a mother’s hug.

Leaders don’t need to physically touch another person or hug them to produce this caring affect. Instead hey can touch someone’s heart with words of sympathy or support, or they can validate someone’s concern and trigger a more positive mental and physical state of mind in that person.

What is most exciting about this new science of human behavior is that we now know that our heart acts like more like an orchestra leader of our states of mind than as a solo musician. Capable or reading the chemistries of our interactions, our heart sends messages up to the brain through a large number of pathways (over 1,400), instructing our brains how to interpret and respond to our moments of contact with others. With this information from our heart, our brain is capable of guiding us to either reach out to others to connect, or to withdraw from others in fear to protect.

Understanding the Alchemy of Trust

Inspired leaders will be further motivated to think and act in new ways as they come to understand the Neuroscience of WE – which is how interactions with others lead to either protection or growth; to high levels of distrust, or high levels of trust.

These states of mind driven by our millions of minute-by-minute neurochemical reactions, translates into how we build trusting relationships with others, how we communicate, and how we shape our relationships every day, all day long. Some scientists at UCLA like Matt Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger say that our brains are designed to be social – and the need for contact is greater than the need for safety. When we are not doing our solo work we are engaged in some form of connectivity, whether it be thinking about others or actually connecting with others.

Connecting to others is not about passing information back and forth. It’s not about just the words we use to talk with each other. That accounts for only 7% of the exchange that takes place between people. Connecting with others is what we need to grow. We learn, grow and nourish each other’s brains by interacting with each other. The tone and intention of our interaction has more power to influence the neurochemical reactions than the words alone.

For example, when a leader trusts that an employee will be able to tackle a project successfully, she will communicate that through subtle yet significant behavior, thoughts, and intentions. At this moment of contact something happens neuro-chemically in both the leader and the employee. If the leader projects positive intentions and thoughts and the employee accomplishes the task at hand, there is a shift in the employee’s confidence that can be directly connected to increases in neurotransmitters – like serotonin and dopamine.

When the leader praises and supports the employee publically, this also unlocks another set of neurochemical patterns that cascade positive chemistry throughout the brain. Highly motivated employees describe the feeling as an almost drug-like dopamine state. When this state of positive arousal comes with appropriate, honest and well-deserved (sincere) praise – the employee feels they are trusted and supported by their boss. They will take more risks, they will speak up more and push back when they have things to say, and they will be more confident with their peers. When employees are given honest feedback, it drives patterns of intrinsic motivation that energizes them or motivates them to access new skills and talents. Yet when the interaction feels judgmental, or embarrassing, a whole different cascade of neurotransmitters takes place, creating a very different brain landscape to drive our future interactions.

Ripple Effects Can Last Forever!

How engagement and interactions impact us is a science that all business people need to learn to understand and to practice. There is a neurochemistry behind praise that actually triggers neurochemical shifts that have a ripple affect not only in the moment, but a ripple effect that can be traced to years in the future (Zandra Harris Ph.D. – Leaders Emotional Contagion Impact on Employee Motivation; University of Phoenix, 2010).

At the moment of contact, how a leader communicates, their tone and intention toward an employee does have a significant impact on their levels of ‘confidence’ and ‘social composure’. Employees literally become better and more competent right in front of our very eyes.

Once these chemicals are released, they give a person the ability to sustain commitment to working on projects even under stress – which means that a person essentially will have greater intention and attention to staying on a project longer to get a result – rather than bailing out midstream and only achieving a fraction of what they could otherwise accomplish.

Rather than ‘replacing employees who aren't cutting it’ or punishing them for not achieving expectations, leaders can now learn new leadership practices they can use with employees to help release or trigger skill-building – propelling mediocre employees to become better, and ensuring good employees become even greater!

TRY THIS EXERCISE! Mental Presence – Trust Under Pressure

What presence do you bring to your job every day; to your relationships? When you stop thinking about your presence, you direct your focus on yourself and your effectiveness diminishes.

You are well-wired to react in the face of a threat. Whether the threat is physical (you have a gun to your head) or social (you are berated in front of others), you react in one of four ways: 1) fight, 2) flee, 3) freeze, or 4) acquiesce. Your reactions are virtually unconscious. Your limbic system does not allow us to differentiate between real, physical threats and the social threats you find at work, such as how to respond to an irate boss or an imminent firing. The perception of threat triggers the same instinctive behavior that is triggered by a real threat because, to your nervous system, they feel the same.

This causes a couple of problems:

  1. Your initial response to that perceived threat may be a poor strategy. Suppose attacking back or storming out of the office are not wise moves?
  2. You naturally justify your immediate, initial reaction, which has the effect of solidifying your position. For example, you might say; "Of course I stormed out of there. I’m tired of getting blamed every time something goes wrong." This response might make perfect sense; however, it entrenches you in a protective posture and causes additional damage. Justifying your reactions doesn’t allow you to see beyond what happened and penetrate to any greater level of truth. You have little chance to address the situation with your "adversary." After all, you know what happened and mainly; they’re to blame.

Here are a five ways you commonly bio-react:

  • Withdraw. You simmer inside keeping the emotion alive by telling stories to yourself and building up a strong case about the person, then sharing your wounds with others whom you trust will respond with compassion.
  • Attack. You may become the aggressor, verbally accelerating the emotion to a higher level, to challenge, intimidate or strike back at the attacker, in an attempt to defend yourself.
  • Acquiesce and get them back later. This gives you time to build your attack strategy. You may not go after the person, but plan to ensure they feel it later. It’s a strategy to purchase peace at the expense of authenticity.
  • Freeze. In the hopes that your attacker will choose someone else to go after, you may find yourself immobilized, tongue-tied, or spaced out.
  • Confront. This means being open, honest, direct and assertive inside a spirit of partnership. Be prepared to state the facts and state how the other person’s behavior has harmed you, the project or another relationship. Be interested in hearing the other individual’s perspective before pronouncing your final judgment, openly communicating and setting boundaries around the behavior that you won’t stand for.

To find the best strategy; you must confront how you’re conditioned to react and deal with issues directly. This requires you to be bold, courageous and trusting that you can work it out face-to-face. Getting to know your conditioned ways of reacting frees you up to act more thoughtfully in every given situation and maximize your commitment to results and fulfillment.