Visceral Trust is Foundational



Trusting and attuned attachment relationships are foundational to healthy child development. Trust is something we learn or don't learn via our experiences in the world.


Trust is also foundational to a healthy and thriving workplace. And high trust work climates don't happen by accident.


Steven Covey Jr. in his book The Speed of Trust, put it quite simply:

When there is high trust, there is low cost. When there is low trust there is high cost.


The costs of failing to do this are great. Teams that lack trust waste inordinate amounts of time and energy managing their behaviors and interactions within the group. They tend to dread team meetings, and are reluctant to take risks in asking for or offering assistance to others. As a result, morale on distrusting teams is usually quite low, and unwanted turnover is high. (Patrick Lencioni, Five Dysfunctions of a Team)

Whether you are an Executive Director of a non-profit or a CEO of a company, considerations of costs are high on your list of concerns. Often leaders look only at the straight numbers and miss the systems perspective. And really, it’s the long term dynamics that have the greatest impact. Investing in building trust pays off.


First what do we mean by Trust.

And second how do we starting building it.


Lencioni's take on trust:

Trust lies at the heart of a functioning, cohesive team . Without it, teamwork is all but impossible. ….In the context of building a team, trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good , and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. In essence, teammates must get comfortable with being vulnerable with one another. ….It requires team members to make themselves vulnerable to one another, and be confident that their respective vulnerabilities will not be used against them . The vulnerabilities I’m referring to include weaknesses, skill deficiencies, interpersonal shortcomings, mistakes, and requests for help.
As ‘soft’ as all of this might sound, it is only when team members are truly comfortable being exposed to one another that they begin to act without concern for protecting themselves . As a result, they can focus their energy and attention completely on the job at hand, rather than on being strategically disingenuous or political with one another.
Achieving vulnerability-based trust is difficult because in the course of career advancement and education, most successful people learn to be competitive with their peers, and protective of their reputations. It is a challenge for them to turn those instincts off for the good of a team, but that is exactly what is required. [1]

So how do we begin building trust? Lencioni admits it's difficult and foundational, but the purview of his book doesn't get to the deeper dynamics of how we can cultivate trust. Yes, it's vulnerability-based, but how do we come to learn that it's safe to be vulnerable?


I was talking earlier this week with my friend Alan Muia who is an expert on addiction and recovery and is Executive Director of New Earth Recovery.


Our limbic brain, he said, needs new experiences in order to be rewired.


Yes! We certainly can’t just go through a Power Point together on trust and say, “Oh, now I get it!’’


A couple of years ago, I discovered the work of Bessel van der Kolk who has worked for decades with veterans and survivors of abuse.

“[We need to provide space for] experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma. (my bold)” - Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score

Whether or not we have experienced traumatic experiences, most if not all of us have experienced stressful relational patterns at work.


I believe that in the same way that trauma survivors need to have experiences that viscerally contradict the trauma, our workplace teams need to enact new patterns of being together that will build a visceral experience of trust and cohesion.


This is why workshops using applied improvisation are so potent. They provide a safe container to gain these new experiences. Once we have a visceral experience of the vulnerability of trying something new and being supported, our visceral memory of trust is strengthened. AND we gain a visceral experience of joy, connection, collaboration with our work team. This is key foundational work to being able to trust each other as a team.


Without experiencing the vulnerability-support matrix that builds trust within a safe container, how do we expect to experience it within the larger more complex world of our workplaces?

[1] Lencioni, Patrick, Five Dysfunctions of a Team (bold added)


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©2020 David Westerlund