Not a bed of roses but rather a . . .

Trust is an important factor in decision making. The higher the level of trust in the in the information you are receiving or people involved in a decision, the easier it will be to make a decision. Easier, in this scenario, equates to using trust as a filter or qualifier of information. Filtering information does not always generate the best decision. When trust is a filter, trust intensifies many cognitive biases. There are more than a few cognitive biases that reduce the amount of perceived uncertainty and risk attributed to a decision. For example, I trust my wife’s ability to see color (she is an award-winning graphic designer and I am color blind).  When picking out clothes for work or an evening on the town I am disadvantaged and I am at risk of creating a bad impression. My trust in her ability to match colors reduces the uncertainty and risk that I will have glaring color mismatches (unless I have irritated her before asking for help). Examples of cognitive biases impacted by trust include the following:

Trust plays a role in decision making by triggering the self-serving bias and/or fundamental attribution error. Both are attribution biases. A self-serving bias is the tendency to attribute to the positive attributes of ourselves or those within the boundaries of our team. Fundamental attribution error refers to a scenario in which an individual or team overemphasizes personality-based explanations for behaviors (e.g. they are lazy, they aren’t very smart) in others while underemphasizing the influence any situation had on driving the behavior. Both biases either disrupt trust or create an environment in which trust will not develop between the team and outsiders.

Another bias that affects trust and therefore decision-making is self-selection bias. This form of bias occurs when people select themselves into a group based on an attribute or an interest. I take part in several meet-up groups. Some of the groups are for podcasting and some agile and scrum groups. Participants choose to associate with each other and the members of the group have at least some implicit level of trust between each other that they do not exhibit towards outsiders. The more intensely held the belief that links the group, the stronger the level of trust that belonging to the group confers.

It is much easier to accept the ideas and suggestions from those you trust. Cognitive biases are patterns of behavior that reflect a deviation in judgment that occurs under particular situations. Cognitive biases affect projects in every step in which humans are involved because they affect decisions. Biases are not prima facie bad, however, because trust can be such a powerful intensifier, decision-makers need to take steps to immunize themselves from bias-based errors. Examples of techniques for avoiding trust driven problems include:

  1. Increasing the diversity of inputs to decisions. Identify and reach out to people outside of your circle of trust for input into the decision-making process.
  2. Mixing-up team membership occasionally. This might sound like heresy to someone that feels that teams should be long-lived entities, however, insular teams lose their edge over time.
  3. Providing coaching to teams and decision-makers. Coaches often can help identify problematic behaviors and then provide guidance to help change the behavior.

Trust is great until it intensifies cognitive biases and blinds decision makers. Perhaps like the three bears porridge, there is a point where trust is just right.