Mar 1, 2016 | Leadership

Last week, I worked with leaders at California State University, San Marcos to talk about trust. We started the day by reviewing a TEDx talk given by Simon Sinek called, “First why and then trust.”

In the talk, Sinek explains that when an organization first starts out, its what and its why are inextricably linked. The founders and the first few employees can usually get together physically – look one another in the eye – and connect on a human level about a shared passion.  Their values and beliefs are in alignment.

The larger an organization becomes, the more its what continues to grow.  “The problem is,” says Sinek, “the why starts to go fuzzy.”  That’s a split that can spell danger.


As more and more people are added to the organization, bureaucracy starts to set in and passion begins to fade.  The further the what and the why are from one another, the greater the trust gap.  According to Sinek and a growing number of leadership gurus like Stephen M.R. Covey, the trust gap is the biggest single challenge any organization will face.


One of the secrets to closing the trust gap involves a monkey, an ice cream cone, and an Italian graduate student.  In the late 1990’s neuroscientists in Parma, Italy, were studying cells in a monkey’s brain that fired only when the monkey raised its arm. One day, a research student walked into the lab with an ice cream cone.  When he absentmindedly raised the cone to his mouth, the monkey’s brain cells for raising its own arm were triggered.  Researchers have since found that the brain is filled with neurons that mirror not only the actions, but also the emotions, of those around us.


These mirror neurons operate as antennae, allowing us to pick up signals in our social world. When we detect the emotions of another person through their actions, our mirror neurons replicate those emotions. That’s the foundation of empathy, and the beginning of trust.


Now think about how we transact business today.  We largely connect with others through technology.  Emails have replaced eye-to-eye conversations.  Texts have replaced heart-to-hearts.  Electronic signatures have replaced handshakes.  Technology has benefited human kind in numerous ways, and will continue to do so in ways that we cannot yet imagine.  Yet, we cannot allow technology to co-opt concepts like friend and network.

As Sinek states, “These require human experience that help us learn about each others’ values and beliefs.  Technology can’t replace that.  Mirror neurons don’t light up when we are sending texts.”


Wherever your organization is along its growth trajectory, be mindful of the what and the why connection.  If bureaucracy is on the rise, chances are that trust is fading.  And when we lose trust, we lose the heartbeat that fuels our passion.

The trust gap is repairable.  If you detect a split between the what and the why in your organization, you can begin the work of closing it by taking the trust test.  Then walk down the hall and ask someone to lunch.


Question: Do you detect a trust gap in your organization?  Are you willing to take the first step to repair it?


Join me and Dr. Tony Baron April 27th in San Diego for The Re:Imagine Leadership Summit.  Discover how to create a culture that can respond swiftly, communicate freely, encourage experimentation, and organize as a network of people motivated by a shared purpose to meet the demand of the 21st century business environment. To learn more or register, go to: 



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