My path into Psychology was somewhat circuitous and, at times, an embarrassing stumble and fumble into the field. I landed in the Clinical/Psychiatric field and was shocked at the mistreatment of some of the most vulnerable of people in our society – the mentally ill. The truth behind the psychiatric cage doors was that an entire system and department of health (often filled with care givers and ex nurses) oversaw a callous and brutal custodianship of these lives. I wondered long and hard how they had lost heart and succumbed to such poor judgement.
Fast forward 15 years, and I now invest much of my time trying to solve the rot at the top. I am often asked to help dysfunctional senior management teams where intelligent, smart and experienced people, often with glinting pedigree, trip over themselves and others. Sometimes the stagnation has been all they know, at other times it seems to creep up on previously healthy teams. It’s a fascinating lift under the hood of many a seemingly burly, purring commercial engine. Sometimes, the more I look, the sadder the picture becomes. Everyone seems to be trying their best but getting the worst out of each other. Add to that some pressure, stress, demanding customers and shareholders, general societal anxiety and insecurity and – boom, good people just let themselves down (and yes, I don’t believe they intentionally turn bad).
What most people want to know is, how did it all get that bad?
In their attempt to understand, they often inadvertently make it worse. There is a knee jerk reaction to blame someone, or something. This further incinerates the last fragments of trust. As the hurling begins, the factions emerge, and leaders create columns of fragmented silos. Survival of the fittest is engaged and the results are always the death of collaboration, cohesion, high performance and sustainable growth and engagement.
Its not always clear how teams get to this point, but one dimension is ubiquitous; low trust in their colleague’s competence or character, or both. Relationships, the very bedrock of humanity, become shaky, and with it all the bonds in the network feel uneasy, self-protecting and self-promoting.
Most people fear they will need to face the music, that they will have to explain how their trust in each other was broken, when the rot began, and who did what to whom. They have mostly lost track of where it all began, but they are acutely aware that the trust has diminished, and the more they look for reasons to mistrust, the more their confirmation bias will find it. All along, they lose sight of the people and the business they lead. Above all though, it feels too messy and murky to deal with, and much like unravelling knotted wool, it seems insurmountable. And so, the undermining continues, and trust keeps dropping.
So how do we fix this?
In almost all cases, even in teams with deep fissures between them, if there is willingness to at least trust me as their partner, then we have a chance of clawing our way back to health. It’s as if there is a self-healing, relational remedy that is waiting to be tugged back to life. Just like most wounds, prodding at the sensitive flesh is painful, but we generally don’t need to re-wound and injure each other, we simply need to name it, and begin healing it. And the ability to mend is within us all. There is a deep evolutionary desire to belong, to connect and be accepted, which makes it possible under safe and firm guidance to reconnect to the goodness in us all.
Sure, I have met many an arrogant leader and team, who see relationships as conditional and one way. They become stuck in blaming everyone else and lack the insight to own their part in their failings and falling trust. Without that insight, its as if they create a self-imposed restraint away from the most natural of human tendencies.
No matter who they are, what they own or think, no matter how impressive or bombastic, I believe in the possibility of reigniting kindness into relationships. When that is nurtured and guided by demonstrated trustworthiness, I have seen teams move quickly towards healthy social communities that deliver on all metrics.
The cost of allowing low trust to pervade, to become the norm, and be used as a weapon of control and fear mongering, is to forget all the other people who exist in our networks. The power of low trust environments is such a threat to our human instinct that it consumes our attention (whether we would like to admit it or not), and at its worst, it blinds us to the worst inhumanity around us.
I eventually realised that the blind eye turned towards the treatment of the mentally ill, was allowed and possible because good people were trying to survive in low trust contexts. They were consumed with survival and the price was literally other people’s lives. Sadly, I see this all around us today too.
The big question must thus always be – Is that a cost worth paying? And are we content to remain fearful of clearing past hurt, and building a new frontier of relating?
I suggest starting with the people close to you. Have the conversations, reboot the relationships and let’s be a pebble in the waters.