Trust in the Workplace

Do you really trust your boss - that he or she will do the right thing by you?

Do you trust your colleagues? As you mentally scan the organization that you work in how many people do you trust enough to tell them what is really going for you?

We know that in today’s business environment we need creativity, flexibility and everyone giving their all. But how often have you come up with a good idea or a better way of doing something and thought twice about telling anyone?  What holds you back?

Instinctively many of us know that it is easier to be yes men and women rather than rock the boat with ideas and thoughts that may be seen as contentious. It is not easy to be honest. As Daryl Mather says: “Honesty is often not seen as a virtue, but as a threat. A challenge to the way things are, to a person's reputation, and to the status quo.”

Why is this? We are taught as kids that it is essential we are honest, yet get into either a work or a social situation and we can lie with the best of them.

To answer this question about honesty, we have to go back to basics and this is the point where many people will switch off and not want to hear. Where did we first learn trust? It was at our parents’ or caregivers’ knee, or more literally in their arms. We had to trust, we had to trust as powerless infants that we would get fed, have our nappies changed and be cared for. However, there was a cost to this. As we got bigger we learnt that in order to get the care, approval and love that we wanted we had to do the things that we were asked to do. We had to become house trained as well as toilet trained. We learnt that there were rules that we had to abide by otherwise we were put in our rooms or punished. We learnt the hard way that when we didn’t do what we were told that we were ostracised and rejected. That felt very uncomfortable. We actually never forget that feeling although for most of us it is buried deep but nevertheless it got imprinted on the blueprints of our personality.

Now as adults we think we are over such simplistic thinking, however the sad truth is we are not, our original conditioning and programming is for most of us, still running the show.

So moving to the present - you are certain that you have come up with a better way of doing something or that your boss’s thinking is flawed or you know that his or her ideas are not really ethical but could and do make a quick buck for everyone. (The current banking scenarios spring to mind.) Imagine yourself challenging the status quo. What happens?

Most bosses would probably hear you out but as you talk you can tell from his/her expression and body language that your idea/comment/suggestion is going down like a lead balloon. You may get a cursory “I’ll think about it” comment or it may be shot down immediately. You sense that your move to be honest wasn’t the best idea and you probably think I’m not sure I’ll do that again.

Let’s jump into the boss’s shoes, what is he/she thinking?

Depending on what the boss learnt about trust at an early age he could be thinking:

·      He’s challenging my ideas, the way I’m thinking. His covert message is that I’m not doing it right, he thinks he can do it better


·      That’s a good idea, I’ll think about that and it may work out better for us all

Ideally he/she will be thinking the latter but unfortunately that is the exception rather than the norm. What s/he thinks will be largely dependent on how his/her own ideas were accepted as a small child. If they were mostly rejected, that is what s/he is most likely to do today. If, however they were taken seriously and considered, that is the way s/he will hear our ideas today.

Unfortunately, when we question our boss’s thinking most react negatively, just as we ourselves so often react negatively when challenged. At a core level, we are being triggered and out of conscious awareness, but none the less present, we fear rejection. This is uncomfortable so we close our minds and look to reinforce our own thinking as a protection mechanism.

Simply put:

At a core (unconscious) level we feel attacked or challenge – our mind closes against the new idea – it feels uncomfortable

Our best form of defense is to attack back – we minimize, ridicule or reject their ideas (our childhood programming is at play)


If we can be consciously aware, we see that someone simply has an idea that is different to ours

We listen, we feel our own discomfort, we hold the tension of our innate desire to reject the idea and the thought that if we can keep our mind open that we can evaluate this using our neo-cortex. (Thus overriding the unconscious, whose primary role is to keep us safe.) And who knows the idea may be extremely useful.

While we like to think that we are sophisticated, rational, intelligent people, (which we are in so many ways) our basic thinking is very primitive and predicated on keeping us safe. That is the way our brain is hardwired and has evolved. The consequence of this evolution is that most of the time we are quite illogical and react emotionally rather than rationally. That is why trust is so hard to earn and so quickly lost, particularly in the work place where we are all competing against each other for our livelihood.

In order to truly move forward in our thinking, we need to understand our own fundamental drivers and that means becoming aware of patterns of thinking that were laid down in childhood. For most of us this feels uncomfortable and somewhat infantile. We think as adults we are beyond all that early stuff. What we fail to realize is that early thinking is the foundation of the way we think and react today. It influences in some way every part of our life right now and at least warrants a look. This is particularly pertinent if we did not particularly admire the thinking we were exposed to as children because like it or not, it is alive and well in us until we become consciously aware. Becoming consciously aware enables us to finally have choice in all our interactions.

Our brains are up to more than we think and they are affecting our bottom line.​​​​​​​

There’s a hidden part of your brain, a hidden part of your employees brain, a hidden part of your colleague’s brain, even your wife or husband’s brain that is always lurking in the shadows influencing all of our behaviour, impacting on every emotion we have and fuelling every motivation that drives us.

This hidden part of the brain affects everything in business, from the bottom line to workplace efficiency, productivity, even staff turn over.

The new edge of leadership today is, and always has been, right under our noses, available for the taking. We’ve already reaped the rewards of better processes, better technology, faster communications but now it’s time to truly understand the ‘people’ at the heart of business and unlock further potential for use in our teams and our clients.

We have heard ‘our value is our people’ so often that it’s an overworked cliché, which few now believe. However there is a whole new level of productivity improvement that can be unleashed as a result of people understanding what is really driving their own behaviour as well those they interact with. That is where the hidden brain comes in.

So what is this hidden part of the brain?

The Unconscious….

Not a term that you would associate with the cut and thrust of business but it explains some of the most important aspects of human behaviour in business.

As the oldest part of our brain, the unconscious evolved when we were but lowly reptiles millions of years ago. It is a part that reacts much faster and more instinctively than our rational brain. It’s primary role is to keep us safe, to decide if it is flight or fight. It reacts quickly without relying on our higher functioning, more rational but much slower consciousness.

The unconscious effectively runs our lives, although we are mostly unaware of it. And unless we understand its workings, we would never admit to it. We think of ourselves as logical creatures with complete control over our every behaviour, thought and action, when in fact most of our thought and behaviour patterns are on automatic, laid down in the unconscious before the age of 5.

Imagine driving a 20, 30 or 40 year old car because psychologically that is what most of us are doing. Operating on unconscious patterns that we learnt when we were children. The reality is our ‘child’ learnings are playing a great part in how we run our businesses.

Our unconscious doesn’t judge whether it is being logical or not, it just believes it is right and that others should and do think, feel and do the same as us. Rationally we know this is not possible but it doesn’t stop us feeling irritated and frustrated when other people don’t agree with us or behave totally differently.

Usually it is only after we have had a fight or experienced tension that we become consciously aware that others don’t think like us. We can blame our unconscious for this because it believes it is right and it wants instant action, instant resolution.

Often when there is frustration and anger our conscious awareness gets bypassed until we slow down and think about what is happening. This is seen clearly with road rage, a driver cuts us up and we feel huge anger. That’s the unconscious at play. If we think rationally we would conclude that the other driver is not deliberately out to get us, most probably they are totally unaware of their poor driving. 

While our unconscious is often hidden, it is nonetheless a magnificent part of our brain. It can process up to 11million pieces of information per second, while we are only conscious of about 40. It is how we are able to drive a car while watching traffic, holding down a conversation and thinking about what time we will arrive. It operates like a hard drive storing all our past information and plays an executive role in our mental lives by gathering and interpreting information. It sets goals in motion, quickly and efficiently.

However, our unconscious has one very significant drawback, it has no powers of critical evaluation, so it believes there is only one truth, its truth.

The underlying cause of all workplace politics stems straight from the unconscious and our need to protect our 3 S’s – survival, safety and our security. Our survival is very basic, having food, water, and shelter. Our safety rests on maintaining our job and our security comes in knowing we have superannuation and are paying off the mortgage.

Our unconscious got programmed from the moment we started life. All our early programming from our parents was dropped into the unconscious, which with no powers of critical evaluation believed everything as truth. This meant our belief systems were largely set by about five years old. It was only at about the age of 4 or 5 that we develop our neo-cortex, which enables us to make rational decisions. However by the time our neo-cortex has developed, our unconscious was long since programmed by all that we heard and saw as young children. While today we can change those, it generally takes conflict or disharmony to force us to reevaluate.

We all want to believe we are ‘good’ and don’t do the ‘bad’ stuff - the blaming, lying, stealing, manipulating etc. Yet we are quick to see others engaged in this type of behaviour and quick to point it out and criticise it. If we draw attention to the ‘bad’ in others, we unconsciously hide the ‘bad’ in ourselves.

Enter the concept of ‘projection’ one of the unconscious minds’ greatest pastimes…

Projection has been around for thousands of years but until now has been little understood.

It is the key to understanding how we operate. When it is acknowledged, and embraced the workplace transforms. Harmful politics subside and people take more responsibility for their part in all interactions. In every relationship, most of us are projecting all the time. Not only are we not aware of projection but we have no idea what we are projecting. Understanding the concept enables a profound shift in all our relationships.

Projection originates from the unconscious and is a mechanism designed to keep us safe…in the short term. We initially used it as small children to avoid being criticised by Mum and Dad. As kids, we didn’t consciously set out to do bad things but we quickly learnt that it was safer to cover our bad behaviour by lying, denying, blaming, justifying or manipulating, to name but a few. Imagine Joe, as a young child sneaking into the pantry, eating all the chocolate and then blaming his brother. As Mum berates the brother, Joe wipes all trace of chocolate from his mouth.

Nothing much has changed, except as adults except we mask our behaviour more subtly and pretend we don’t have these very human characteristics. We just project them on everyone else, distracting attention so we feel good because others are ‘bad’. This ingenuous mechanism enables us to deflect our own inadequacies and we get great delight in seeing other’s faults.

The worse a relationship gets, the more failings we see in the other. Soon we find endless flaws. Concentrating on what is wrong with others allows us not to think about our own faults or what part we play in each of our difficult relationships. Conveniently we have a vested interest in seeing other’s failings. It makes us feel a lot better about ourselves. However, while we momentarily feel better about ourselves we are setting ourselves up for long term disaster.

Furthermore, it takes a great deal of our precious energy to hide, camouflage and ignore what is essentially human behaviour emanating from a more primitive part of our brain.

When we don’t recognize projection, trouble starts. Office politics set in and destroy our workplace, our minor disputes turn into major tiffs, morale, productivity, efficiency decrease - the bottom line suffers.

The key is to simply recognize that we too are capable of the ‘bad’ behaviour that gets us so riled up and annoyed. Unless we admit that to ourselves we will inevitably project it onto others.

Projection ultimately destroys relationships. When we blame others, and find fault with them we don’t take responsibility for the part we play. Yet, uncomfortable as it is, we are 50% responsible for the dynamic in any relationship, for helping create the dynamic, for maintaining it and for allowing it to go sour.

We need to understand that when any situation is reactive that there is substantial energy invested in denying certain characteristics that are alive and well in us, but deeply hidden. A good rule of thumb is that ‘if you spot it, know you’ve got it’ or at least tendencies towards it. While your argument may be that just because we recognize murder, it doesn’t mean that we are murderers is very valid, it is nevertheless helpful to acknowledge that if necessary we too are capable of taking a life, even that of a mosquito.

In the workplace, common incidents of projection occur all the time. The fact that we work in hierarchical organizations automatically means that at an unconscious level we assume our boss is Mum or Dad with all the built-in complications of our parental relationships. These can include sibling rivalry when we resent the attention another employee may be getting from the boss and we feel we are missing out. Other common behaviour patterns include, withholding information, competition, aggressiveness, manipulation, withdrawal of recognition, frustration at not being heard, perceived favouritism, territorial empire building and the list goes on to cover almost every behaviour found in companies.

By understanding projection, we can check out our assumptions of others. For example, we may think we are being criticised, but we can ask the other, “Are you criticising me?” If the answer is no we know we were projecting. We thought they were critical but that wasn’t the reality.

We also need to recognize that others project onto us as much as we project onto them. So, we may be reacting to another’s projection, which is not the reality. When we understand, and accept projection, conflict is minimized, disappointment reduced, relationships improve and we create a win-win environment. Today’s leaders will build tomorrow’s companies by embracing this knowledge.

All easily done by educating people about the power of their brain and the power of the brain they didn’t even know they had!

Article written by Gail Pemberton