“A colleague has put a knife in my back and now we have to work closely together on an important major project. How can I trust him?”
So began a very illuminating conversation some weeks ago on a leadership development programme. ‘Trust’ was the theme of our workshop. We had already explored the significance of David Maister’s trust equation and the foundational important of trust in Patrick Lencioni’s thinking on team dysfunctions as well as the place of Nonviolent Communication in re-establishing trust; we were now applying these theories to our experience as business leaders. Half an hour in to my client’s Action Learning session he let rip with uncharacteristic anger – “I’ve thought of all of this! I’ve done all of this!” The group tried some paradoxical interventions – “What haven’t you thought of? What haven’t you done?” but it was no use… The group process ground to a halt.
It was a wonderful moment - a 'moment that mattered'. I wondered to myself if, beneath his anger (apparently at the group process but more probably still at his colleague), there was hate? Hate is such a taboo emotion that it is difficult in our Western organisational (and social) cultures to explore it openly, without shaming or shutting down our clients. Yet it is such a human response. The function of anger is to establish our boundaries – to say ‘stop!’ when people tread on our toes. When our anger is not respected, and our boundaries continue to be transgressed, hate arises. Quite naturally, we want to remove ourselves from the transgressor or remove that person from our presence – so the function of hate is to sever – to remove the threat decisively. Hate is a survival response. In my client’s situation, where business reality meant he had to continue to collaborate, he could not literally remove himself or his would-be assassin. Instead, he did something that we can all relate to – he removed his colleague from his heart.
While he could not acknowledge his hate to himself or anyone else, he could not trust his colleague nor be trusted by him while he tried to express feelings, needs and requests; or work on raising intimacy and lowering self-orientation; or making himself vulnerable. Such approaches only work if we are truly self-aware and authentic, rather than overlaying a sophisticated strategy on to our deeper and more uncomfortable feelings. I imagine that at some visceral level, my client’s treacherous colleague would notice some lack of deep honesty and unresolved feelings. Until my client could surface and confront in himself the depth of his anger and hate, and his sense of helplessness and outrage from his experience of being knifed in the back, there could be no real contact and connection between them. Authenticity is the basis of trust. Paradoxically, this also requires that we trust our own inner assassin while not acting on such feelings…
To be absolutely clear – I am not endorsing hate or supporting hateful responses at work or in life. Yet hate is a part of our human experience, and transforming it so that we can reclaim our authority in relationships requires us to acknowledge it, confront it in ourselves and work compassionately on it so that we can move forwards more positively together. Part of the difficulty of experiencing hate is that we so often attack ourselves for having such taboo feelings – as though we must be terrible people. But then we end up hating our hatred, which serves no-one!