Anyone who’s managed other people for any length of time knows one thing for certain: Human beings are a complex species, and always not especially rational one. Most of us have seen our colleagues and subordinates make decisions and take actions that, on their surface, don’t seem to make a great deal of sense, such as choosing to lie, adopting a hostile attitude, refusing to cooperate or doing other things that sabotage their companies or careers. When it happens, we’re usually left shaking our heads, asking ourselves what were they thinking.
As hard as it sometimes may be to believe, all of us have brains, and all of us think. All of them function in much the same way – and are prone to very similar common dysfunctions. As managers, we like to think that we are managing people, but in fact we are managing their brains, trying to bypass individuals’ short-sightedness, self-interest, and – most of all – fear in an effort to forge a high-functioning, trust-grounded team.
The American psychologist Phillip McGraw states that “Eighty percent of choices are based upon fear. People don’t choose what they want; they choose what they feel is safe.” If you think about it, fear is the dysfunction that most often drives the bad decisions we see as managers – and the reasons for that fear are often rational, even if the behaviors they inspire are not. Workplace threats to position, to prestige, and to security are very real, and fear is these threats’ natural by-product.
As managers, defusing that fear is one of our most vital tasks. Leading brain science authority Dr. Srini Pillay observes the following:
“Trust and fear are inversely related and affect the brain in opposite ways. Fear increases amygdala activation while trust decreases it. Developing a trusting work environment is important in similar ways to creating a non-fear based motivational space. It frees up the thinking brain to focus on relevant issues rather than using up thinking resources to resolve trust conflicts. Trust is also rewarding since it affects several components of the reward system. These components feed back to the action centers in the brain, preparing the brain to act. Without trust, action is inhibited or infused with fear; this compromises actions.” (Your Brain and business, Srini Pillay, 2011)
As managers, can we eliminate fear and irrationality in our employees? Of course not – there are definite limits on the extent of our control. We do, however, have a great deal of influence over individual and collective employee thought processes, and through a few simple steps we can make great strides towards mitigating fear and fostering mutual trust. Let me give you some steps:
- Be honest and direct. Open, sincere, and timely communication with employees short-circuits speculation, dampens gossip, lowers anxiety, and engenders trust and respect. It also provides an outstanding leading example of how you expect employees to relate to one another.
- Be appreciative. A sense of security, belonging, and being appreciated goes a long way towards eliminating fear – and the most direct, immediate way to create those feelings is by frequently thanking your people for their contributions.
- Be open to feedback. Two-way communication without fear of reprisal is critical to creating a trust-based environment. Listening to employees and colleagues without angry or defensive responses demonstrates your respect, open-mindedness, and appreciation of their positions.
- Be task-focused. By concentrating on the job at hand – i.e., your company’s products and services, rather than personalities or company politics – you focus your peoples’ attention on areas where they have control and influence, and where they stand to gain a sense of accomplishment.
- Be accepting of mistakes. “Permission to fail” is a relatively new concept in business, but it’s a critical one. Encouraging employees to try new approaches and learn from their mistakes without repercussions sends a powerful message of trust and respect to your team members.
Will there still be instances of distrust and moments of irrational fear? Of course. Human beings aren’t robots, aren’t perfect, and aren’t predictable. It’s possible, though, to greatly reduce their frequency and significance – and engender the spirit of cooperation, rather than internal competition, needed for a high-functioning team.
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