The Neuroscience of Mistrust







Please forgive me for the world’s worst drawing of your amygdala.  If you’ll bear with me, I will explain this peculiar but important post.

Unless you’ve been living under a managerial rock, you’ve certainly heard that trust is the key component in any good leadership scenario.  If people don’t trust you, you will not be an effective leader.

You can find a multitude of good advice on ways to build trust.  Search the topic on the internet, and thousands of business management articles will pop up.  However, they rarely address the neuroscience behind mistrust, and I think it’s important to recognize the biological challenge of building trust. 

First, I must note that I am not a neuroscientist.  I am not qualified to speak on this topic in-depth, so what follows is going to be a ridiculously simplistic lesson on what I’ve learned about our primal friend, The Amygdala.

The amygdala is a small part of our brain that looks like two little almonds.  It works with other parts of the brain to trigger our emotions.  If you see a clump of thread and jump because you think it’s a spider, you can thank your amygdala for that.  It’s primal.  It’s there to protect us.  It retrieves emotional memories instantly.

Unfortunately, it’s also like Fear from the movie Inside Out.  (Haven’t seen the movie?  Watch it.  You can thank me later.)  The amygdala can jump into hyperdrive when the situation doesn't warrant a strong reaction.  It also contriubutes to our automatic (and often unconscious) biases toward people who we view as threateningly different from us.  This is where damaging stereotypes come from.  If we learn something worrisome about another person (or even a situation or a creature), and we later encounter something related to that person (or situation or creature), our amygdala lights up and issues a warning.  We get all worked up and judgmental, and we usually don’t even realize what is happening.  It’s biological.  But it is controllable.

Being aware of this natural function helps us to develop healthy trust relationships.  Here’s what we need to consider:

To expand on this:

We probably don’t have control over our first thought in any given situation.  Think of a time when you’ve had a bad experience with a person or a group of people (or maybe you were told something upsetting that sounded believable).  You might not even remember the details of that experience, but your amygdala will remember the emotions tied to that experience.  If you see that person or people again, your amygdala can immediately usher in all of the necessary high-alert reactions to release certain chemicals in your brain, which will impair the prefrontal cortex (the logical part of your brain) and get you ready for a fight-or-flight reaction.  Now that your prefrontal cortex is impaired, chances are pretty good you aren’t going to be 100% logical.  You will probably react out of anger or fear or disgust or sadness (another Inside Out reference there).  If you allow this to happen, it can cloud your judgment of otherwise good people (possibly including your staff or boss), causing you to project mistrust when it’s not warranted.  This is what is known in the management world as the “Horn Effect” - you place devil horns on certain people regardless of their actions.

On the flip side, you could also react out of Joy (I promise that’s my last Inside Out reference).  If you have a good experience with a person or group of people or hear something good about them that you believe, your amygdala puts you in a happy, welcoming place when you see them.  You trust them.  You want to work with them.  You don’t have any desire to crush them like the scary spider-thread-clump you threw a shoe at earlier.  (My apologies to all spider-lovers out there.)  This is what is known in the management world as the “Halo Effect” - you place angel halos on certain people regardless of their actions.

Even though we might not have control over our first thought, we can exercise control over our second thought and every thought thereafter.  If we catch ourselves automatically thinking something negative about someone or something, we can stop and question that assumption.  Could it be that we are allowing something from the past to cloud our judgment in the present?  Could it be that we are judging one person or a group of people by the actions of another?  I’m not saying that’s always the case, but I am saying that this type of thought-check helps us become aware of unconscious biases and allows us the opportunity to see the potential good in one another. 

If you created a bad experience for your employee at some point in time, that incident could have cemented into that employee’s amygdala response, and mistrust could be that employee’s immediate go-to response in any number of interactions with you.  Even if a different leader from the employee’s past created a bad experience, that might reflect on you regardless of whether it's warranted.  That’s not fair, but our amygdala doesn’t care about what’s fair.  It cares about what protects us.  We can’t help it.  And it has long-term effects because our amygdala can attach negative emotions to everything about the person, company, cohort, or situation that created the initial upset.  Any time we hear or see something about that person, company, cohort or situation, we could react with alarm and mistrust.  This reaction erodes your ability to build the trust you are seeking.

So, what can you do to build trust?  You should do all those great things suggested in those trust-related articles you read, but do them with the amygdala in mind.  You don’t need to (nor should you try to) psychologically analyze your employees, but if you are struggling to build a trusting relationship with an employee, give some consideration to the possibility that you not only have to prove your trustworthiness, you might also have to rise to the level of undoing previous damage - whether caused by you or someone else. 

Mistrust is an act of self-protection.  If you want to be trusted, focus on what you can do to eliminate your employees’ need to feel like they must protect themselves. 

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