Building trust

Going beyond the games we play…

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We live in a time of low trust. Social media is the dominant source of information, yet is built in a way to amplify our own viewpoints, and reduce intrusion from views that are different/diverse. We live in our own realities, and struggle to identify the real from the fake — #FakeNews. Consequently, this lack of diversity means that our relationships suffer as well; it impacts our personal relationships, and especially our professional relationships. Back in 2001, Patrick Lencioni identified the primary dysfunction of teams as being “Absence of Trust”; in the age of social media, this is more prevalent than ever. We struggle to embrace diversity, engage the views of others, work together for positive outcomes.

An example of a low-trust scenario:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, but they have enough to convict both on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:

  • If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves two years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve three years in prison (and vice versa)
  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will serve only one year in prison (on the lesser charge).

You may recognise this as “The Prisoners Dilemma” — one of the original games of Game Theory. This has been a popular theory on human nature for many years, and has been used by many to justify their thinking on relationships between humans — effectively, we’ll always act in our own self-interest to preserve ourselves, over cooperating with others.

Neuroscience has confirmed this bias:

  • Our brain is hard-wired to separate friend from foe. And sadly, that means that any deviance from our perception of “friend”, be that in looks, skin colour, hair colour, even clothing, can trigger us into categorising people into “in” or “out” groups.
  • Our brain has a deep aversion to unfairness. When we perceive something to be unfair or unjust, the flight-or-fight responses in our brain are triggered, overriding rational thinking.

If we were to just stop there, we could justify the scenario played out above as being proof of incontrovertible human nature; we are cognitively predisposed to being untrusting.

Are we really that awful? Can we really assume that our nature is to mistrust each other?

No. Fortunately, we have the ability to overcome the parts of our brain that are deep-triggered. The animal response in our brain, the amygdala, is governed by a much larger, logical part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. When this is engaged, it allows us to override our more base instincts, and engage reasoning and logic. It has been proven that friend/foe instincts can be overridden with empathy. Better still, it rewards us in scenarios were fairness is inherent, through releasing dopamine; the chemical which makes us feel good, into our brains.

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How about Game Theory?

The original scenario described is deeply flawed. It is a zero-sum game; even if both prisoners cooperate, they’ll still spend time in prison, so it’s in their best (selfish) interest to betray each other. They don’t have the opportunity to discuss their circumstances with each other, so don’t know what the other is thinking, so can only make assumptions.

Everyday scenarios do not play out like this at all. We tend to engage in conversation with others when there are things at stake, to ensure understanding. Even high-stakes political situations can be resolved with dialogue — there will always be some mutual benefits that can be uncovered.

However, there are some key conditions that need to be met to ensure evolving trust:

  • REPEAT INTERACTIONS; Trust keeps a relationship going, but you need the knowledge of possible future repeat interactions before trust can evolve. Therefore, the more you get to know the other person, the more you trust them
  • POSSIBLE WIN-WINS; You must be playing a non-zero-sum game, a game where it’s at least possible that both players can be better off.
  • LOW MISCOMMUNICATION If the level of miscommunication is too high, trust breaks down. But when there's a little bit of miscommunication, it pays to be more forgiving.

In summary, although we live in low-trust times, we can evolve our thinking and perceptions of others through engaging in better quality communication, and grow trust through repeated interactions. And ultimately, this will lead to better quality relationships and interactions for all involved.

Written by

Agile Coach, husband, dad, fitness nut. Founder of #LeanCoffeeBelfast, co-founder of @PCampBelfast. Agile Coach at BT

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