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The Neuroscience of Trust in Uncertain Times

DrJohnK December 14, 2020 28


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Trust is a fickle thing. It's been likened to a bankroll in your pocket. Each time you earn someone's trust your bankroll gets a little larger. You keep on demonstrating your trustworthiness to people and your bankroll slowly but steadily grows. When I do this in a live example in workshops, I give the volunteer the money, and they give it back to me, most often the smallest bills first.
Then one moment, you breach their trust.
In the live test in a workshop, immediately the volunteer demands the big bills back. And that's how trust is lost, greatly and at once.

It takes a lifetime to build trust and a moment to lose it.

Regaining trust after a single breach is very difficult. The other party is even more wary. Cheat me once, shame on you. “Cheat me twice, shame on me.”
Trust is about how we deal with uncertainty. Even when I have proven myself trustworthy to you time and time again, over many years, there is always a remnant of uncertainty. Heck you aren't even completely certain that you can trust yourself!
Our ability to choose to trust another person is an emotionally driven choice. Paul Zac's neuroscience research into what makes trust in the brain clearly demonstrates that the neurochemical oxytocin is a precursor to trust by the conscious, deliberate actions.
When I am uncertain whether I can trust or not (and I am always uncertain), oxytocin is stimulated in the critter brain if I recognise you and like you. If you have proven trustworthy before, there is more oxytocin produced. I am then prepared to trust. Then there is a delay, sometimes imperceptible, other times prolonged as I search my smart brain for confirmation. Dependent on our history of trusting, I will then choose to trust without certainty.
Collaboration can happen now.
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Two choices, to trust without certainty or to shift the burden. Which do you choose?
When I am uncertain and perhaps I don't know you at all, or only a little. I might know you, but not like you. Less oxytocin is stimulated in the critter brain then I may choose not to trust you just now. I'm on the defensive, protecting myself from the consequences of action. At this point I re-define the task and shift the burden away from trust – probably blaming you at this point.
There's very little chance of collaboration now.
This is all quite normal and something we learn in our early childhood. Who can we trust and to what extent. Sometimes we get burned and that causes us to re-evaluate all of our relationships. Yes, the consequences of breaching someone's trust can significantly impact how that person chooses to trust anyone else in the future or not.
The bigger issues arise when one party has chosen to trust the other, whilst the other party has chosen to re-define the task and protect themselves.
There's almost no chance of collaboration ever again.
Leaders only have to breach trust once to enjoy the unintended consequences and fallout.
To lead a team to continually collaborate is living in a world of trust without certainty and always proving your trustworthiness as a leader. It requires the leader to demonstrate trust with uncertainty and do so unfailingly, every day. It's living life on the edge of uncertainty.

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DrJohnK

I help people unlock their talent, unstuck their potential and unleash their own (and their team's) performance through behavioural neuroscience based coaching and mentoring. Most whip smart independent contributors, technical specialists and managers get frustrated trying to be heard and understood by their business leaders and they lack enough time and inclination to develop the skills they need to move into management and leadership positions. Proven systems. A personal coach and mentor. I combine time-tested systems, behavioural neuroscience and psychology research and practical tools with the accountability and guidance of a 1:1 coach and mentor to UnLock your Talent, UnStuck Your Potential and UnLeash Your Performance.

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