Defusing Trust Eroders – Part I

Thursday, December 13, 2012


Bob heard the beep and looked at his phone. There was a text message from Leslie, one of his Improvementology mentees.

It said:

Hi Bob, Do you have time to help me with a behaviour barrier that I keep hitting and cannot see a way around?

Bob thumbed his reply:

?Yes. I am free at the moment – please feel free to call.


?Hello Leslie. How can I help?

Hi Bob.  I really hope  you can help me with this recurring Niggle. I have looked through my Foundation notes and I cannot see where it is described and it does not seem to be a Nerve Curve problem.

?I will do my best. Can you outline the context or give me an example?

It is easier to give you an example.  This week I was working with a team in my organisation who approached me to help them with recurring niggles in their process. I went to see for myself and I mapped their process and identified where their niggles were and what was driving them.  That was the easy bit.  But when I started to make suggestions of what they could do to resolve their problems they started to give me a hard time and kept saying ‘Yes, but …”.  It was as if they were asking for help but did not really want it.  They kept emphasising that all their problems were caused by other people outside their department and kept asking me what I could do about it. I felt as if they were pushing the problem onto me and I was also feeling guilty for not being able to sort it out for them.

There was a pause. Then Bob said.

?You are correct Leslie. This is not a Nerve Curve issue.  It is a different people-related system issue. It is ubiquitous and it is a potentially deadly organisational disease. We call it Trust Eroding Behaviour.

That sounds exactly how it felt for me. I went to help in good faith and quickly started to feel distrustful of their motives. It was not a good feeling and I do not know if I want to go back. One part of me says ‘ It is your duty – you have made a commitment’ and another part of me says ‘Stop – you are being suckered.’  What is happening?

?Do you remember that the Improvement Science framework has three parts – Processes, People and Systems?


?OK. This is part of the People component and it is similar to but different from the Nerve Curve.  The Nerve Curve is a hard-wired emotional response to any change. The Fright, Fight, Flight response. It is just the way we are and it is not ‘correctable’. This is different. This is a learned behaviour.  Which means it can be unlearned.

Unlearned? That is not a concept that I am familiar with. Can you explain? Is it the same as forgetting?

?Forgetting means that you cannot bring something to conscious awareness.  Unlearning is different – it operates at a deeper psychological and emotional level.  Have you ever tried to change a bad habit?

Yes I have. I used to smoke which is definitely a bad habit and I managed to give up but it was really tough.

?What you did was to unlearn the smoking habit.  You did not forget about smoking.  You could not because you are repeatedly reminded by other people who still indulge in the habit.

Ah ha! I see what you mean. Yes – after I kicked the habit I became a bit of a Stop-Smoking evangelist. I even had a tee shirt. It did not seem to make much impact on the still-smokers though.  If anything it seemed to make them more determined to keep doing it – just to spite me!

?Yes. What you describe is what many people report. It is part if the same learned behaviour patterns. The habit that is causing the issue is rather like smoking because it causes short-term pleasure and long-term pain. It is both attractive and destructive.  The behaviour feels good briefly but it is toxic to trust which is why we call it the Trust Eroding Behaviour.

What is the habit? I do not recognise the behaviour that you are referring to.

?The habit is called discounting.  The reason we are not aware of it is we do it unconsciously. 

What is it that we do?

?It is easier to give you some examples.  How do you feel when all the feedback you get is silence? How do you feel when someone complains that their mistake was not their fault? How do you feel when you try to help but you hit invisible barriers that block your progess?

sad_faceOuch! Those are uncomfortable questions. When I get no feedback I feel anxious and even fearful that I have made a mistake,  and no one is telling me, and a nasty surprise is on its way. When someone keeps complaining that even though they made the mistake they are not to blame I feel angry. When I try to help others and fail I feel sad because my reputation, credibility and self-confidence is damaged.

?OK. Do not panic. These negative emotional reactions are the normal reaction to discounting behaviour.  Another word for discounting is disrespect. The three primary emotions we feel are fear, anger and sadness. Fear is the sense of impending loss; anger is the sense of present loss; and sadness is the sense of past loss.  They are the same emotions that we feel on the Nerve Curve.  What is different is the cause. Discounting is a learned disrepectful behaviour.

Oooo! That really resonates with me. Just reflecting on one day at work I can think of lots of examples of all of those negative feelings. So when do we learn this discounting habit?

?It is believed that we learn this behaviour when we are very young – before the age of seven.  And because we learn it so young we internalise it and we become unaware of it.  It then becomes a habit that is reinforced with years of practice.

Wow! That rings true for me – and it may explain why I actively avoided some people at school – they were just toxic.  But they had friends, went to college, got jobs, married andstarted families – just like me. Does that mean we grow out of it? 

?Most people unlearn some of these behavioural habits because life-experience teaches them that they are counter-productive. We all carry some of them though and they tend to emerge when we are tired and under pressure. Some people get sort of stuck and carry these behaviours into their adult life. Their behaviour can be toxic to organisations.

I definitely resonate with that statement! Is there a way to unlearn this discounting habit?

?Yes – just becoming aware of its existence is the first step. There are some strategies that we can learn, practice and use to defuse the discounting behaviour and over time our bad habit can be kicked.”

Wow! That sounds really useful.  And not just at work – I can see benefits in other areas of my life too.

?Yes. Improvement science is powerful medicine.

So what do I need to do?

?You have learned the 6M Design framework for resolving process niggles. There is an equivalent one for dissolving people niggles.  I will send you some material to read and then we can talk again.

Will it help me resolve the problem that I have with the department that asked for my help who are behaving like Victims?


OK – please send me the material. I promise to read it, reflect on it and I will arrange another conversation. I cannot wait to learn how to nail this niggle! I can see a huge win-win-win opportunity here.

?OK. The material is on its way. I look forward to our next conversation.

Defusing Trust Eroders – Part I

Defusing Trust Eroders – Part II

Defusing Trust Eroders – Part III