How Bad Bosses Create Distrust

By: Judith E. Glaser, Marcia Ruben, Ph.D., Sandra Foster, Ph.D., & Debra Pearce-McCall, Ph.D.

Executive Summary

This distinctive blog post highlights the actions a boss can choose to directly impact their own neurochemistry, behaviors and expressions that promote a climate of trust and encourage co-creation among the team. The reader will discover straightforward explanations of the interplay of two crucial hormones – ‘oxytocin and cortisol’, supported by the latest research on the neuroscience behind conversations. The terms up-regulate and down-regulate clearly guide a boss in establishing the conversational intelligence that benefits partnerships, teams, business units, and can be socialized within an entire organization.bad bosses

You will recognize this familiar situation: The boss has gathered all the teams reporting to business unit heads, including you, for a meeting. The boss wants everyone to “brainstorm” ideas that will eventually result in a major shift in your organization’s product focus. You dread this encounter. Your boss dictates the format of the meeting and how the discussion will be handled by speaking only to his favorite Business Unit Heads. He excludes other groups with his judgmental comments, even though he is well meaning, and wants to move the company past stagnant sales and poor customer feedback. 

Put yourself in the shoes of one of the leaders who is being overlooked as part of the ‘inner circle’. You know you have to be at the meeting, and although you have a terrific idea to suggest you again remind yourself not to speak up. You know from past experience the likelihood is high that your boss will sarcastically belittle the recommendations that come from your group. Your colleagues are encouraging you to speak up but you feel truly threatened. You expect that your boss will just exert his influence of “power-over” everyone and he’ll run his own agenda and your opinions will not be received very well – if at all. You feel very unsettled and anxious (your heart is pounding and you have a knot in your stomach) and this seems to override your intuition that your idea would be an important contribution.

What’s going on here? You have a good idea; your colleagues support you bringing it up; and yet when you anticipate or encounter a “power-over” boss, you shut down. Many people react to “power-over” communications by going into some version of fight, flight, or freeze, because they are experiencing a threat. Our body’s neurochemistry is activated first unconsciously (Liddell et al., 2005), and then consciously, by our perception, and fear, that our competence, or even our very being, is under threat.

The Neuroscience of Conversations

At our CreatingWE Institute, we have studied what is going on behind the scenes and in our minds when we engage with others in conversations. Our nervous systems are constantly evaluating the environment and making internal neurochemical adaptations that impact our range of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors – and most of all impact our conversations.

This automatic and out-of-awareness process has been termed “neuroception” (Porges, 2003) and describes the instant reading of cues and corresponding physiological shifts to neural states that support safety and healthy connection and conversation with others (associated with producing more oxytocin), or those neural states of defensiveness, or immobilization where unhealthy conversation is almost inevitable (these states are associated with higher levels of cortisol).

The quality and the impact or potential of the meetings we attend are affected by the neuroceptions of all the participants. Even having memories of “power-over” comments – which are often experienced as a disregarding tone of voice, and a felt sense of exclusion – can create a nervous system response to these feared future threats while simply anticipating the next meeting. And since we are social beings, automatically responding to perceived cues of relational safety or danger, we are very likely to carry this feeling and anticipation with us into the next meeting, influencing how we show up, how we influence and what we take away as our ‘beliefs’ and our ‘judgments’ about what ‘is true’ and ‘what will happen next’.

When we are connecting with others in non-judgmental ways, we are exercising higher levels of Conversational Intelligence® and a healthy balance of our connecting neurotransmitters emerges within us – including oxytocin, the bonding hormone. When we feel we distrust others, and are not connecting in a healthy and non-judgmental way, we see an elevation in different hormones, for example, the neurotransmitter cortisol, considered the stress hormone, is secreted – and we may activate more cortisol by having the ‘self-appraisal or self-talk’ that we will be judged as wrong, or worse as stupid and not valued (Thagard & Wood, 2015).

Impact of Cortisol

Elevated levels of cortisol can exert a detrimental effect on the prefrontal cortex which mediates judgment and decision making, thus interfering with our ability to think clearly and express ourselves with confidence (Diorio, Viau, & Meaney, 1993), just when we need to do so most. Just the act of imagining ourselves being criticized publicly, in front of colleagues, elicits fear and a neurochemical shift. When we feel threatened and our thinking brain closes down, we are in what Daniel Goleman (1995) labeled an “Amygdala Hijack.” The amygdala (which alerts us and in this case signals “be afraid!”) exists in an ongoing dynamic interplay with the prefrontal cortex, the evolutionarily newest, and front and center areas of our brains, essential for our best work. Just seeing a face that we perceive as untrustworthy can trigger even higher levels of cortisol and amygdala activation (Said, Baron, & Todorov, 2009). The team member, the boss, and the organization all lose when a good idea gets lost due to an amygdala hijack!

So what, Now what!

Leaders like the boss described invariably mean well. They are action-oriented and have been rewarded for getting results. As they have moved up the ranks, they take their go-getter behaviors with them and can become bosses that exert “power-over” rather than “power-with” behaviors as they engage with their organizations. Unwittingly, they shut down the creativity and ideas of their team, and they sabotage the results that they so desperately want to create with others. Team members with good ideas stay silent. The team can feel stuck, stagnant, or destructively competitive.

How to change this dynamic : From Power-Over to Power-With


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