Can you be trusted to decide who to trust?

Image credit: Trust workflow by John Cutler @johncutlefish

Leaders and managers constantly make decisions about who they trust. Trust is one of the foundations of scaling a business successfully by extending your reach. But if your trust-detection apparatus is not as good as you think, then you need a smarter way to decide who to trust.

Once you understand the way your brain informs your decision-making, a few simple checks can help you avoid the deceits and confidence tricks your brain is playing on you.

You may be lying to yourself

When we decide to trust someone it is often an intuitive and instantaneous decision. We may explain the decisions to ourselves afterwards, but this explanation is most likely to be a fabrication.

It takes time and brain energy to do a full analysis so it cheaper and easier for us to simply believe a lie. This may have given us an evolutionary advantage in our hunter-gatherer past when running away from an angry wild boar was better than waiting until you had worked-out the pros and cons of running, climbing a tree or standing your ground.

In the context of business and the workplace, decisions only rarely need to be instantaneous, and always have consequences.

Yet instinct, the right person, and convenience, whoever is available or currently idle, are often the strongest influencers when choosing who to delegate for a job. You have probably been through the thought process yourself, ‘Esther has the skills and would enjoy the challenge, but she’s busy on another project and Brian’s free right now. He’s reliable and I can trust him.’

John Cutler’s Trust diagram above shows just how convenient it is to operate with trust when compared with the alternatives. Nobody wants to go through the tedium of meetings and steering committees if there’s someone to whom the work can be delegated that is trustworthy. Once again, it seems we have evolved to take the path of least resistance, so the trusted individual is preferred over the unknown.

That is almost certainly insufficient data on which to make an informed decision. But it is cheaper to make that decision than it is to set-out the outcomes so the responsibility and authority for the work can be properly delegated.

All it laziness or efficiency, we are designed to lie to ourselves to minimise our workload.

Instinct is non-verbal

Intuition is informed by instinct, experience, and general ‘big picture’ senses. The functions are associated with the right side of the brain. As a left-brain dominant person, or as an accountable and responsible manager, we need reasons to justify our decisions and behaviours. The right brain cannot communicate in this way, but the left brain can, so it provides a left-brain answer, using reasoning, deduction, or a convenient lie.

Of course, you accept this answer absolutely, after all, it came from someone you trust absolutely — yourself.

Add to this a busy schedule that doesn’t allow you the time to consider this any longer, and you tell yourself to make the decision to ‘go with your instinct’. After all, it’s never let you down before and your partner does keep reminding you to trust your instincts.

The difference between right and left-brain hemispheres

Although it sounds like 1970s psychobabble and although a lot of nonsense has been told about brain process, we do have two hemispheres and they do have different operating modes.

The right side of your brain is good at the big picture, intuitive, visual and typically, non-verbal activities. While verbal, reasoning, and detail-focused functions are things the left side likes doing.

After studying responses to input, split-brain researcher Michael S Gazzinga showed that the left brain uses reason and guesswork to explain right brain actions and decisions. Both sides of the brain accept input and both control our body, yet only the left brain is able to express thought and logic, articulating it via what Gazzinga calls an ‘interpreter’.

We have all experienced this. You recognise a person’s face immediately but have to think systematically through the places you have been to work-out how you know them. Reasoning, systems, and even thinking are all focused activities that are associated with the left brain. Indeed, this is normally a very efficient duality. Our right brain can make fast and intuitive decisions without needing to refer to the slower left brain for permission or validation.

The Interpreter in the brain

Gazzinga’s experiments showed that the answer given through the interpreter to the question ‘why did you choose that?’ was a reasoned explanation given by the left brain and not the actual reason for the right brain’s decision.

In other words, the left brain had lied to justify the right brain’s action.

The subject of the experiment had chosen the correct answer, but for the wrong reason. Gazzinga says it took him many years to realise that asking ‘why?’ might be a revealing question.

In a BBC Radio 4 casebook, neuroscientist Dr. Paul Broks described a case of ‘anarchic limb’. Broks watched as the subject’s left arm fought against him and against his right arm when he tried lighting a cigarette.

Normal and ‘fully-present’ brains allow both hemispheres to interact freely. Yet we know that some individuals tend to favour one side more than the other. We even have sayings that are aimed at helping people to be more balanced. To some, we say ‘go with your intuition’ and to others ‘think before you make a decision’.

We’re all affected and we all exploit it

As someone highly motivated by intuition myself, I am aware that I attach more significance to those initial impulses, and that my own confirmation bias reinforces them. I want another coffee and although I tell myself, via left-brain reasoning that I’ve had enough caffeine and any more will make me wired, I will shortly give-in to the anticipated taste, flavour, warmth, and hit. All sensations of the right brain, expressed verbally by the left brain.

Psychologist Robert Cialdini describes ‘liking’ someone as one of six principles of persuasion. He explains how confidence tricksters get victims to like them in order to gain their trust. Similarly, sales and marketing specialists encourage us to like and trust their spokespeople, endorsers, and products.

On the other side of the same argument, nobody wants to deliver bad news because they may be liked less. In some places, it can be hazardous to tell superiors at work things they don’t want to hear. Messengers tend to get shot and nobody really wants to run that risk unnecessarily, so a culture of turd-polishing prevails where senior managers see green traffic lights and front-line staff talk about the project from hell.


The counter argument is that the lies we tell ourselves or others do not matter nearly so much as our actions.

According to Vanguard’s John Little, it doesn’t matter what a leader knows or says, it’s what a leader believes and does that determines what the organisation achieves.

For example, if I see my leader is willing to do the unpleasant jobs, then I might be more willing to take my turn to do them too. Importantly too, the leader will gain insights from that experience that cannot be expressed through language by another person. Little says it is crucial for leaders to experience the system for themselves, to go out ‘in the van with the plumber’, or ‘put the headset on and work the call centre’.

As much as we all differ in our left-right braininess, so we differ in the way we trust others. In an exercise on trust amongst a six-man senior management team, we discovered one person to be extremely trusting and forgiving, one moderately open to trust, one open but unforgiving once trust was broken, two to be variously guarded, and one who trusted nobody. Everyone trusted differently and the group covered the entire spectrum of trust.

Making better decisions about trust

Whilst at work we make thousands of decisions daily, and some are qualitative — do I trust what this person is telling me? Can I trust this person? Which of these people is telling me the truth?

One thing we can be sure of is that our rational powers of reasoning are not based solely on the factual evidence. We are influenced by our own lies, biases, and external influences.

There are steps we all can take to make better-informed decisions about trust.

Six things we can all do to make better decisions about trust

1. Allow yourself time and permission to change your opinion as you actively evaluate your trust in an individual. Your left brain takes time to catch-up with your intuitions and takes time to articulate and inform you. It may be several days later, and likely as not come to you whilst you are doing something completely different, such as taking a shower, driving your car, or mowing your lawn.

2. Experience the source of the information that is presented for yourself, rather than hearing a third-party account. ‘Go and see’ is a Toyota practice (called Genchi Genbutsu) in which managers visit the place where the work is actually done. Reports, statistics, and dashboards are indicators at best and must be completed by understanding.

3. Get other people’s opinions. Not just your fellow managers but peers of the person and the people they are managing. Objective data like employee approval scores for their managers is ideal if you have it, if not, then start gathering it. This is how managers are scored at Google.

4. Make sure to include non-verbal input from others too. Richard Sheridan’s recruitment process at Menlo involves a period of pair-working after which the team is invited to do a thumbs-up or down for the candidate. If there are no sideways thumbs and a clear majority, the decision has been made. Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats® is an effective and powerful tool for making decisions, that challenges participant’s thinking in six dimensions.

5. Articulate your reasoning in writing. Imagine there is an investigation and the committee wants to know why you gave this person that responsibility. It’s not going to happen of course, but the process of articulation clarifies and advances thinking. To quote Jeff Terrell “Your writing will never be clearer than your thinking” and why.

6. Better still, articulate and discuss it with your pair manager. Pair managing has so many advantages and this process of cross-checking to remove errors caused by cognitive bias is one them.

Trust in Leaders

My favourite story about trust is from Shashi Verma, Director of Customer Experience, Transport for London. I interviewed him about the Contactless Fares payment system that Sean Smith and I designed and built for him. I was expecting him to talk about Agile being fabulous, how brilliant we were, and what a great team we formed.

Instead, he said,

“You have to decide if you can trust your team. If you can trust them, you step back and let them do their job.”

At that point, I realised the crucial importance of leadership and effective management. And I’ve been researching management and agile ever since.

I trust you

I’m not comfortable with sharing my feelings. Not even with myself. So what I’m going to say next is difficult for me.

It’s been an uphill challenge to find my writing voice again. I’m actively trying to improve my craft and this piece is the result of the first experiment. It still took me four days’ to write it, so I’ve got a long way to go, yet I feel happier about the process and the outcome. But that’s just opinion. I want your feedback as you are my customer.

Clapping on Medium, RT on Twitter (@ConsultStorm) and sharing on LinkedIn are all easy ways for you to show you approve of my efforts. If you want to be even more supportive, I would value your comments as well about the writing, if you feel it speaks to the target audience of managers, and about the points I raise.

Thank-you for your kind attention


Digital Transformation Expert and Agile leader, supporting execs, managers, and DevOps teams as Agile Coach

Originally published at on June 3, 2018.