This is Your Brain on Work Relationships

A person walking by a bank of windows in a building looks at the building wiht a skeptical look on their face

This is Your Brain on Work Relationships

This is Your Brain on Work Relationships 1575 1050 Brook Thorndycraft

Recently I was chatting with a friend who had just quit her job that she used to love, because it was causing her so much stress. It wasn’t about the workload or the difficulty of the work. The problem was relationships. After several years of COVID and little attention to building relationships on suddenly remote teams, distrust had grown and people all seemed to expect their colleagues to be “out to get them.” She realized that she was feeling under constant threat whenever she had to go into the office, and decided it was time to give herself a break. This felt like such a familiar story that it got me thinking.

We have created these very unnatural ways of relating, and then called them workplaces. Our workplaces and ways of working go against our nature as humans. No wonder so many of us feel exhausted after a meeting or workplace gathering! 

We fundamentally need to be in relationship: we need a sense of belonging and purpose, and we thrive through connection and mutual trust. We all know this already. We can feel it in our bodies. How it feels when we are in community with people who care about us, who know us, who accept us even when we mess up, versus how it feels when we are not. Our wisdom traditions have long told us how important connection with other beings is. More recently, neuroscience has joined in to tell us the same thing. 

But our workplaces – structured for productivity and efficiency, not for connection, structured for competition and proving merit, not for belonging – were never designed with our fundamental social nature in mind. And there are entire fields of study, entire industries of consultants and coaches based on the fallout. What if we just redesigned the work that humans do, according to how humans are?  

Breaking it down…

We humans evolved to find safety in social connection. We are dependent on each other. We learn, grow, understand our environment, and collaborate to achieve great things through our connections with other people. 

This is embedded in our neurobiology. When we experience trust and connection, our nervous system sends messages to the rest of our body that we are safe, and our body is able to find a balance of rest and activation of energy. When we feel a greater sense of safety in a social setting, one of the things that happens is that our body produces more oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. The increased oxytocin in particular creates more of a sense of trust. It helps us connect, empathize, be curious and creative, and learn and grow. 

When we do not feel a sense of safety in a social context, our nervous system’s threat response goes off and sends messages to our endocrine system (hormones) and our immune system to prepare for danger. This leads to greater amounts of cortisol and adrenaline, and to the activation of the immune system to fight a potential invader. While this is very important in short and acute situations of threat, when the feeling of threat goes on for a long time – for example in low-trust or toxic workplaces – the various systems of the body stay in a heightened state of alert, which takes a huge toll on the body, and is the source of many chronic health conditions (if you want to know more about the science behind this, here is one helpful article).

Are hormones involved in burnout? (Spoiler: yes)

In a Harvard Business Review article talking about extensive studies into trust in the workplace, the researchers measured people’s levels of oxytocin – remember this is the lower threat and higher connection hormone – and compared how much oxytocin they had to how much they had trust-based relationships at work.

They found that when compared to people at low-trust companies, people at companies that were found to have a high level of trust reported “74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout.”

We don’t have to like each other

Feeling connected does not mean we have to like each other, or get along all of the time. It’s actually enough to know that we are working together toward something, and we have each other’s back. That I know I can tell you what I really think, even if you won’t like it. Showing each other basic respect as humans.

This is what is usually referred to as psychological safety, what Amy Edmondston defines as “A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions concerns or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” 

Here’s where the trouble comes in

One of the great tragedies of being human is that we are interconnected and need each other, but we have a strong inclination to perceive more threat, including in social situations, than there actually is. In fact, because social connection and belonging is so key to our wellbeing, we are primed to notice anything that might be a threat to that connection. 

Think of the kinds of potential social threats we might experience at work:

  • The potential of being devalued in front of your boss by a competitive coworker
  • The possibility of being overlooked for an important project because you aren’t part of the “in group”
  • Getting the sense that people gossip about you behind your back

And sometimes these threats represent a real threat, but sometimes the threat is not real, or is much smaller than we thought. Sometimes the way we react to the threat, real or perceived, actually increases it.

This leads our system to produce more adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones. They are designed to keep us safe, help us be strong, increase our ability to look out for threats, and allow us to run. They are not designed for greater connection.

This disproportionate focus on threat is called negativity bias. The analogy that many neuroscientists use is that our brain is like velcro for bad or threatening experiences and is like teflon for good experiences. The good experiences slide right off, while the bad experiences stick firm and inform how we understand anything that comes next. 

So we need relationships and connection, but we are primed to look out for threat. This means we need to work doubly hard to create the conditions for trust. 

How it plays out

I have seen this so often with leaders I work with.  If I am a leader and someone on my team who tends to challenge me frowns and asks a sceptical question about a new idea I’m suggesting, there is a chance my brain will experience that as a threat. It feels bad, and if I’m not conscious of what is happening, I’m off into a whole cycle of self-fulfilling thoughts. 

For example, if I tend to go to a fight place, the thoughts might be something like, “I’ve always known that person doesn’t like me, and now they are disrespecting my authority and pretty soon they are going to be insubordinate and then I’m going to have to discipline them, and it’s me or them, so I need to protect myself and make sure they are discredited.” Or if I tend to be more of a people pleaser, it might be something more like, “Oh no this person hates my idea and it probably is a terrible idea, and I really need them on my side, so I need to just forget about it, and how am I going to make sure they haven’t lost respect for me?” 

And of course those thoughts and feelings impact our behaviour. Maybe in the first example, I react in a way that feels authoritarian or like I’m micromanaging. Maybe in the second example, I give in too easily, don’t hold people accountable, or can’t make a decision because I am trying to keep everyone happy. Pretty soon everyone is feeling like there is a threat. 

To add to this, we feed off of each other. If my nervous system perceives that the nervous systems of people around me are sensing threat, then my nervous system will also go on alert, even if I’m not aware of it. This is why psychological safety is so important. The more I sense your nervous system is on alert, the more mine is activated, and the more I am likely to do things that will make you feel more threatened – and round and round we go.

What can we do about this?

While everyone plays an important role in creating more trust in the workplace, the major work to shift culture relies on leadership. This is partly because in most workplaces, people in formal positions of leadership tend to set expectations and model the norms, and also have the strategic role of creating a “safe enough” context in which culture change can happen. 

But in addition to this, there is another way in which leaders influence the threat response. When we are in leadership, our nervous system reactions have an amplified impact on the people who we are leading. In other words, the physiological sense of threat that someone feels when a leader’s nervous system is activated tends to be stronger and feels more threatening than if it were a peer. 

Why are we more threatened by a leader’s threat response? There are a few reasons this is true. First, there are the physiological reasons. If the people who are perceived to have more knowledge of a situation and the power to impact it are reacting to something as a threat, that is a cue to our nervous system that the threat is probably very threatening. 

Then there are the tangible effects of someone in leadership being caught in a threat response. If someone with more positional power than me is stuck in a threat response, their behaviour has the potential to have a big impact on what it feels like to come to work, what kinds of reactions I can expect if things go wrong, and how safe it is to raise issues or challenge their perspective. 

So how do we fix it? Fundamentally, this all has to do with building two kinds of more trust-based relationships: 1) with yourself and your nervous system, and 2) with and between people you work with. 

Everyone in every role can start with their relationship with themself

This is where emotional and embodied personal development is so important. We can talk about trust and safety all we want, but when our bodies are sending a different message, that is what people will most feel. 

We can build our capacity to notice when we are having a threat response that might be heightened by negativity bias, and develop strategies to shift out of it. You can help your body to decrease its production of adrenaline and cortisol, and increase its production of oxytocin and endorphins. 

The process in the moment might look something like this:

  • Notice your threat alarm going off: Start paying more attention to your body and your physiological signs. What happens in your body when your threat response is activated? Does your heart speed up? Do you feel tense or constricted? Do you zone out or feel confused? Maybe your body temperature goes up. Most likely, there are thoughts and emotions that go with the physical sensations. Some of those thoughts might be repetitive. These can all be helpful signs that our threat alarms have been activated. Everyone is different, so try to notice what happens for you. 
  • Interrupt it: When you notice these signs, take a break and do something that breaks the pattern and ideally decreases the threat hormones. Try a range of things until you find what works for you. Some people need a moment of calm and rest, while others need to burn off the adrenaline. Sometimes what helps is connection, time and support, and other times it might be helpful to take some time alone to meditate or listen to music. Again, everyone is different, so explore what helps you interrupt the pattern.
  • Find your curiosity: At some point, you will start feeling less activated. Then you can gently and kindly challenge yourself to be curious about whether or not the threat is as big as it feels. Ask yourself what might you be missing? What are the stories your threat response is telling you, and what else might be true? Try to imagine possibilities that feel totally unrealistic from the perspective of your threat response. You can also ask yourself to notice and really focus on any evidence that you might have that counters the feeling of threat, for example, positive interactions with the person who is activating your threat response. Of course, if the threat is as big as it feels, then you will want to do what you can to stay safe, but accessing curiosity will help you to assess that risk more accurately. 

If you find it very hard to access your curiosity, that might be a sign that you are still in the threat response. At that point it can be helpful to connect with someone who can help you ask the curious questions with care. 

Beyond the moment of sensing a threat, there is a lot you can do to build your capacity to experience the discomfort of feeling threatened without it turning into a full threat response. For more information about what this might look like, check out this blog post about leadership and reactivity

Build relationships on the team

And then there are the ways you can build trust-based relationships with your team and between members of your team.

To build trust-based relationships on the team, there are a range of possible interventions from small daily practices all the way to large culture transformation. If you feel like you need a larger intervention but you aren’t sure what is happening that is negatively impacting trust, you might want to start with a culture assessment (for more information, check out our Culture Change Process).

But either way, there are likely small things you can do right away. Here are just a few examples. 

Pay attention to the interactions you experience or witness

Sometimes with coaching clients, I like to suggest that people do an informal “connection audit.” I invite them to pay attention for a week to how people interact (themselves included). I get them to notice the following:

  • What kinds of thoughts, behaviours, or practices do you notice happening each day (from you or others) that you think might be increasing people’s feelings of connection and trust?
  • What kinds of thoughts, behaviours, or practices do you notice happening each day (from you or others) that you think might be decreasing people’s feelings of connection and trust?

You can take this a step further to notice what kinds of organizational structures, processes, or rules seem to be facilitating or hindering trust-building interactions. 

This will not necessarily show you the path forward, but it might give you some ideas of things to try, or help you decide if you will need a more intensive intervention. 

Build your interpersonal skills and support your team to do the same

Healthy and trust based culture has so much to do with how people interact with each other, both in the day to day and also in more challenging situations like giving feedback or trying to navigate conflict in ways that lead to better outcomes. If you don’t feel confident in your own communication or conflict skills, this is an absolutely essential area of leadership development. As always, start with yourself

But beyond that, it can be very helpful for a team to build their communication, feedback and conflict skills together. Support honest communication and healthy disagreement – people will disagree but it doesn’t have to be threatening and in fact can lead to greater possibility and better relationships if you create the conditions for people to take a generative approach to conflict

Give people challenging but achievable goals to do together, and then celebrate together when they meet them. 

Think of the thrill and sense of connection of being on a sports team that has just won a game. When people work together and successfully achieve a goal, both the process and the outcome activates our social engagement systems and releases neurochemicals (like oxytocin and endorphins) that encourage connection.  It is that feeling of “We are in this together, we did it together.” Of course this is all within the context of “healthy stress.” When the goal is too challenging to achieve or doing so causes too much stress, then it has the opposite effect of activating the threat response. This is one reason why issues of workload, unrealistic expectations, unclear roles and responsibilities, or unhealthy competition can have such a negative impact on relationships and people’s ability to collaborate. 

Build your awareness of power and how it is used and misused

Think of the boss who has trouble making a decision without consulting everyone, or the leader who is so intimidating and perfectionist that people are afraid to ask questions or approach her for support. Or imagine the coworker who gathers information about others in the office, and then shares that information in ways that undercuts their credibility or makes people doubt their capacity. 

There is nothing that will set off people’s threat responses in a workplace more than leaders using their power – or allowing others to use their power – in ways that have a negative impact on others in the workplace. 

Juxtapose this with how it feels when a leader knows how to use their power well. Maybe they know exactly how consultative to be, and when it is necessary to make a decision to avoid spinning in indecision. Think about how, in a time of change or crisis, a leader shares just the right amount of information to support people to make decisions, without oversharing or leaving people in confusion. In these situations of effective use of power, people feel trust and a sense that things are in good hands. Understanding the power of the role and knowing how to use it for the wellbeing of the workplace is one of the most important trust building things a leader can do. If you feel this might be an area of growth and you aren’t sure where to begin, check out Julie Diamond’s work on power intelligence, or reach out for coaching to help you assess how power is used in your organization.

Challenge the mindsets that get in the way of trust

There are many other ways you can build connection and trust in the workplace and decrease the threat response. 

It is time to change the mindset that so many workplaces still hold: that people can come to work as rational individuals with no need for social connection or safety. We need to recognize that we all bring our whole complex safety-seeking selves with us wherever we go, and that the very structures we are supposed to work in reinforce our natural inclinations to see potential threats everywhere we go. We can change those structures by integrating greater practices of trust into our work. 

If you are unsure how to begin the process of creating trust-based culture and leadership, reach out to find out more about how we can support you.