Leadership Secrets: Disarm Negativity to Build Team Trust

According to neurological research referenced by the Neuroleadership Institute (NLI), here are two conclusions to consider in disarming negativity and building trust on a team: 

  • The brain craves certainty
  • AND the brain is wired to be alert to threat

How challenging! We’re in a dynamic state of wanting one thing—assurance that all is well—and driven by the hard wiring in our brains to be on the lookout for what’s wrong, so it’s no wonder we’re stressed!

“Fruitful collaboration depends on healthy relationships, which require trust and empathy. But in the brain, the ability to feel trust and empathy about others is shaped by whether they are perceived to be part of the same social group.”  – David Rock, “Managing with the Brain in Mind

What can you, as the leader, do to ease these tension points?

1. Create a sense of Certainty

Given that change is constant—new team leader, new team member, new product, new competition, new owner, new problems and new opportunities—how do you as a team leader create a safe environment so that your team members can experience enough certainty that they stay focused, productive and engaged?

A key component of creating team certainty is helping your team see the horizon. Knowing what your vision is (that you have a vision!) creates a sense of direction so we know where we are going. It enables team members to prioritize and creates a sense of certainty. We want to know what to expect, what’s next, what’s in store, who we can count on—answers to these questions help relax the brain from its OMG attention to perceived danger.

  • How clear is your team about the direction you see for it, for them?
  • What information can you share with your team today that can contribute to their sense of certainty?
  • What have you been keeping from them that could disarm their unspoken worry?
  • Even if the situation has not yet been resolved, can you share the status of the situation and what is being looked into or explored?

Certainty isn’t always about having a definitive answer. It can be about feeling assured that you’re part of the solution, know as much as is reasonable at this stage, and you aren’t being completely left out and at the mercy of someone else’s decision.

2. Recognize and Release the Negativity Bias

There are 5x more negative networks in the brain than positive according to NLI. We are constantly scanning the surroundings for cues of what is amiss and needs to be addressed. The switch from always searching for what’s wrong or who’s wrong to what’s working and who’s contributing is actually quite significant.

Without self-reflection of our natural biases (positive, negative, open to change, resistant to change), we remain caught up in ancient habits. Yes, when the fire alarm actually detects smoke and it’s time to run out the door, we’re very happy we have these ancient wirings. But when we remain in the mode of high alert throughout the work day, we not only exhaust our minds and bodies, but we miss the cues for what’s working well!

How often do you catch yourself complaining? Is it about you, others, or the situation? Think about these as lanes in the brain that have been rutted with use over time. Choose to create a fork in the road.

3. Name the Perceived Threats

One of the tactical ways to turn down the volume on negativity, team anxiety and the collective anticipation of everything that could possibly go wrong is so simple, most people dismiss it. It’s the simple act of naming what is. Labeling or naming a perceived threat or acknowledging a situation can diminish the chemical response in the brain that heightens the sense that something is amiss. And it happens very quickly.

You are actually calming yourself and the collective perception when you can guide your team to identify the elephant in the room or the perceived threat. Then it’s a shorter stretch to reach toward antidotes and solutions.

When we stay in a threat response mode all day long we are exhausted by end of day because it uses an enormous amount of brain energy to run at that high alert state (David Rock, “Managing with the Brain in Mind“)

4. Identify the Dynamics on Your Team – is it one Tribe or a multitude of Warring Factions?

What’s the current state and nature of your team in the workplace?

Is it a senior level team, essentially cross functional in construction? Or a project team focused on a very specific initiative?

How many of the members are new to the company, to the team, or to their roles?

Think about what happens when a new team member joins your group. First and foremost, we evaluate the individual on all levels—mentally, emotionally, physically.

  • Do they have the expertise we need and value? Are they trustworthy?
  • Do they do what they say they will do?
  • Do they share our sense of humor and social respect for others?
  • Do they look, sound, and act like me?
  • Do they “fit” with the workplace team?

Every change in personnel creates a rift in the equanimity of a team, raising into question each person’s degree of power, influence, status and responsibilities.

Creating safety and building trust on a team includes helping your team develop the skills to craft certainty for themselves. It will help them build their self-awareness, practice naming what is possible and what is not, including the team dysfunction that reigns at any moment.

As the team leader, how adept are you at addressing tensions before they escalate?

How committed are you to developing your team members with the leadership skills and other crucial traits necessary to build team trust through respectful and productive interaction?

Of this, I am certain, the more of us who practice the art of creating certainty and safety for our teams, the more inspired, productive, and collaborative your team will become.