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Why our brains create problems at work – and what we can do about it

Our brains are a 10,000-year-old design. They equip us efficiently to respond to the threat of a wild animal, but haven’t evolved to deal with the jungle we now inhabit. In fact, the oldest parts of our brains can’t tell the difference between a snarling predator and an uneasy relationship with our boss! Our hardwired fight or flight response is behind much of the conflict we see in the workplace, from minor irritations to shattered careers. But the good news is that we can train our brains and help ourselves and those around us to create a more positive culture. At the heart of this is the ability to have good conversations within trusting and purposeful relationships.

How many times have you wanted to bring up a difficult subject or give feedback to a member of your team, or your manager or a client, but avoided doing so? Maybe you were held back by memories of previous conversations and uneasy feelings. Or maybe it was concern for how the other person would react (upset, angry), with possibly far-reaching implications for your relationship. Quite probably it felt safer not to take the risk.

Now turn the tables around. Think of a time when someone gave you feedback that you didn’t like. How did you respond? Perhaps you fought back and said something you later regretted or maybe you just seethed inwardly (and remember this applies to non-workplace scenarios too!). Chances are it affected how you feel about the person who provided the feedback and may have also affected how you feel about your work or role overall. Conversely, has anyone ever shared constructive criticism with you that you appreciated? How is it different when the person giving feedback is someone you trust and who you believe is genuinely committed to helping you succeed?

We instinctively know that trusting relationships create a happier and more productive working environment. And yet through lack of time, commitment or skill, building trust is often over-looked in organisations. Only 33% of UK employees say they trust their employer 1. Significantly, in high-trust organisations people report 74% less stress and 50% higher productivity 2. A Google study on the secret of high-performing teams showed that who is on a team matters less than the interaction they have between them 3. Open, honest conversations between colleagues create a more trusting and collaborative environment.

So where does training our brains fit into all this? The first step is a basic understanding of what is happening in your brain. If you can recognise the physiological signs of the stress hormone cortisol being released then you can learn to control it when facing a potentially stressful interaction. Knowing how to approach a difficult conversation not only keeps your brain in check but also helps the other person to stay on a more even keel. If you are then clear on the focus of the conversation, able to share without judging and remain tuned to what the other person is saying and feeling, you can have a constructive interaction and avoid the car crash that could have occurred.

The good news is that, with practice, everyone can improve conversational skills and, in doing so, raise performance and well-being. So what can you and your organisation do?

  1. Embrace a better way of talking to each other that honours your shared purpose and what matters most, and that keeps stress responses under control (i.e. it’s safe for people to voice their feelings, needs and concerns)

  2. Call on help when needed – engaging a professional mediator is not a ‘last resort’ but valuable (being neutral, impartial, non-judgemental) in restoring dialogue where trust has weakened or communication is challenging.

Marianne, Ingrid Allen & Catherine Connolly

Marianne is an accredited workplace and commercial mediator, and a coach and consultant. Marianne is founder of Shift Resolutions and she is recognised for helping people who are experiencing tension or conflict in their professional relationships to safely communicate their feelings, needs and ideas and take positive action for a better future.

Ingrid Allen and Catherine Connolly are co-founders of Conscious Conversations. Conscious Conversations provide a short, focused intervention to help people have better conversations - leading to better collaboration and ultimately to more trusting relationships. The sessions are creative, interactive and fun.


1 E&Y Global Trust in the workplace survey 2016

2 The Trust Factor: the science of creating high performing companies, Paul J. Zak 2017

3 Google study Project Aristotle (2016)

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