Pure Genius: Stop Teaching Trust…Teach This Instead!

You hear it and read it constantly—that the best performing teams enjoy a very high level of trust.

Duh! That conclusion seems painfully obvious.

Any successful military platoon, design team, family, or sports franchise simply wastes no time wondering whether or not their teammates “have their back” and so their actions occur much quicker, easier, and with much less effort, than teams that just are not quite so sure about their fellow players.

Well, with all of the talk about how trust is so desirable, it comes as no surprise that organizations attempt to teach trust to every player on every team—from the CEO to the part-time weekend security guard.

And who could blame them? Certainly not I.

Here’s the rub…YOU CAN’T TEACH TRUST! In case you missed that, you really, really, really cannot teach trust. Really! It is completely unteachable, like teaching the process for falling in love or having faith.

When we engage with a team—high performing or dysfunctional, the trust level present “shows itself” quite quickly. Here’s what it looks like:

  • High performing teams rarely speak about trust. They simply do not need to, as a high level of trust already exists. No one is overly concerned or focused on “working on trust.” It’s kind of like a good marriage. The happy couple simply takes good care of each other. No great need to “work on the relationship.”
  • Poor performing teams, or those that really struggle, tend to speak about, and even dwell on trust, since they have successfully avoided building the foundational trust that (mysteriously, it would seem) high performing teams already have in place. They tend to have a yearly theme centered on trust, hold workshops, do off-sites, and even conduct “team bonding” events—all in an attempt to grow or improve trust.

Then come the corporate trainers, the Human Resources department, and lots of time, money, and focus—all aimed at teaching trust.

Well, when the HR department enters into the picture, especially when the subject is trust, a predictable pattern arises: the team members tend to give the “right” answers, and the trust level does not change much. A full day (or two) is invested, with a team of 30, and the idea is to teach the team members and the Team Leader to trust more. Great intention. Impossible mission.

Back to Rule #1: YOU CAN’T TEACH TRUST, so stop it! Really, it’s biologically impossible!

When the Internal Affairs Department enters the police station, to “ask a few questions” the same result takes place: everyone goes through the motions, and not much changes for the better.


Why The Brain Stubbornly Refuses to Learn Trust

As young mammals, we learn to trust instinctively. We have a sense of whom to fear, and whom to trust.

Where does that instinct come from?

The short answer is the limbic brain. Why does this matter? The answer contains the reason trust is “unlearnable” by the brain.

The neocortex functions well primarily in the functions of logic and language. It’s the part of the brain where you justify your budget numbers for next year, make small talk, defend a client, or write a blog while on an airplane, as the case may be.

Super useful, and we spend a lot of time in this part of the brain.

The neocortex, in comparison, holds emotion and 1000 times as many ways to take in and process information than the neocortex does, but has no logic, nor language. Most decisions are made in the limbic, or “reptilian” brain, and our best and worst memories are stored here. Ever gently touch a burn victim on the arm where they incurred significant burns? Even though the skin and flesh have healed, they still wince. This instinctive act represents quite nicely the power of the limbic brain. Although the pain has long since subsided, the memory of the burns remains powerfully in the limbic brain.

Does it make logical sense? Nope. It does not have to, just like many of our emotions and decisions. We make a decision or conclusion in the limbic part of the brain, and then defend it using the neocortex.

Well, when you attempt to teach trust, you are playing in the inappropriate part of the brain, namely the neocortex. You’re presenting logical ideas, connecting dots, and at the end of the day-long training, everyone is supposed to trust, because it’s the logical conclusion.

Problem is, if I do not like you, I am afraid of you, or I somehow sense it unsafe to engage with you, no amount of logic will make me trust you! All of these conclusions courtesy of the 1000:1 ratio of useful data points that my limbic picks up, that my neocortex cannot. If you notice, children have a much more intuitive sense of whom to trust. Why? They simply do not have as much logic and language, so they use their senses to assess whom to trust and whom to avoid.

Your neocortex probably led you to the obvious conclusion: that trust resides in your limbic brain, nowhere near logic and language. Talking about trust oftentimes makes it more fleeting, like attempting to fall in love by talking about the definition or advantage of loving someone.

So Then How Do High Performing Teams Enjoy So Much Trust?

Trust is indeed incredibly real (like love), and remains the most powerful differentiating factor between high-performing teams and those that do not perform so well. That begs the question then: How do the high-performing teams develop trust so well?

Know this….they rarely attempt to teach trust. As you might have picked up…you cannot teach trust, so they know intuitively not to do so.

Instead, they work on the foundational underpinnings of trust. And that would be….SAFETY!

Think about it (with your neocortex) for a moment. If the crosswalk does not feel or appear safe, no amount of coaxing, no “walk now” sign, nor any police officer in the street will get you to move without much discomfort. It just does not feel safe to move…all of this courtesy of your limbic brain on high alert. No language will suffice to ease your high alert status, and until your limbic brain signs off on the idea that it is now safe to proceed, you will not leave the curb.

The interactions between humans work much the same way. Have you ever had the immediate sense that “he is not trustworthy” or “I had better keep an eye on her” without really knowing the person in question? We all have. Does that make you judgmental? Sure. Is it without justification? Probably not. It simply reflects your limbic brain at its very best—processing information that cannot really be explained nor justified, and is more often than not, right on the money!

This phenomenon occurs when we “know in our gut” that it’s the right (or wrong) decision. You cannot justify or explain it (well), but you are certain about your decision.

Well, high-performing teams know and enjoy this level of trust without having to speak about it much, all because they teach and employ safe practices. It’s really that simple. When you want to build muscles, you focus on exercise, not muscles. When you want trust as your outcome, you need to teach safety, not trust.

Your brain knows how to learn safety, and the end result or outcome is higher levels of trust.

Consider a meddling parent who is constantly monitoring his or her teenager. That teen senses the invasion of privacy and knows intuitively to hide what they are doing. It’s simply not safe to trust the intentions, actions, or intrusion of the meddling parent. It becomes the wise…and predictable outcome of the meddling.

Teams at work function much the same way. If the Team Leader criticizes team members at meetings, only the most courageous will speak up with new ideas. It’s just not safe to do so. The team members can actually trust that they are likely to be ridiculed or called out, so they simply remain quiet. Multiply this lack of safety by several unsafe practices, and voila!, trust is compromised.

Building Trust In Your Team

Building trust in a team is simple…and not easy. Simply teach and employ safe practices with regards to humans. Some of those might look like this:

  • Praise in public.
  • Criticize in private.
  • Share all credit for successes, even if you created the success by yourself.
  • Take responsibility as the Team Leader for missed promises or deadlines.
  • Keep promises.
  • Show up on time.
  • Say please and thank you.
  • Do what you say you’ll do.
  • Appreciate (like make more valuable) each team member.

Comment below and add your own safe practice that your team employs or could employ starting right away. You’ll be helping build trust in your team, family, or that of another person.

All the best!

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