How Trust influences Decision Making

20 Oct

It was Giddens (1991) who argued that trust is a cocoon against risk. It’s a compelling argument but contains a flaw when taken at face value- the argument confuses risk and uncertainty. Risk is what has gone on in the past, it’s empirical, and this is what trust is built on, observations of past events which have had consistent outcomes. What Giddens was arguing is that trust is a “plausible story” (Weick, 2009) which helps us act\plan in an uncertain world, however, trust comes with a price- the potential to reduce resilience. In this article I’ll argue that trust has both positive and negative consequences for organisations and how these manifest.

The feeling of trust is very comforting, and it does provide a cocoon against risk-this person\ situation is predictable, and so carries less stress, less uncertainty, something which does not have to be worried about; at least relative to other things. Unfortunately, because of the role of prediction in trust, it can blunt reactions to uncertainty-a future which contains potential shocks and surprises. This explains why when routinized life circumstances change dramatically people struggle to cope- a system someone trusted has been broken down leaving them unprepared and with few coping mechanisms. Examined from an alternative angle, a lack of trust in situations and people increases cognitive load, making action almost impossible or incredibly painful. So what is the “trust sweet spot” for decision making?

I recently conducted two pieces of research, one with a clinical team who work in Accident and Emergency (I’m being vague due to the anonymous nature of the work) and the second with a Construction Manager who oversees 17 members of staff across multiples sites. I’ll start by summarising my experiences with the clinical team. The clinical team were close knit and had worked together for a number of years. A member of the team would diagnose a patient and pass this diagnosis onto another member of staff who would act based on this diagnosis. The transmitting of this diagnosis and other related information was largely verbal and tacit. When asked a question such as “how do you know your colleague understands the diagnosis?” the reply would always be some version of “I can just tell by looking at their face”. This is trust.

This type of trust was borne out of working intimately with the same members of staff over a number of years. It’s similar to the type of trust and expertise Kahneman (2013) spoke of when he used his wife as an example-he could tell by the way his wife answered the phone exactly what mood she was in.

I read a recent interview with Gary Klein (Brockman, 2013) who mentioned he was researching decision making in a social care setting. In this particular setting staff turnover was consistently high, there was no time for trust to develop. The temptation in this type of situation is to develop checklists which catch most of the relevant information instead of focusing on expertise. This is the exact opposite of my clinical team work; the clinical team culture was strong, built from working with colleagues for years. The team did not require checklists and procedures (beyond the basics) they applied trust, to the point of reading the facial expressions of familiar colleagues.

The stress point in this way of working for the clinical team came when there was a member of “bank staff” (a temp. worker) to work with or they had to deal with someone who they “didn’t trust”. This interruption of trust was recovered (Weick, 2013) by simply “muddling through”. It was at this point I began to frame trust not as an emotional condition but as a place on a spectrum of perceived risk; trust became minimal perceived risk. Briefly returning to the Klein interview (where he discussed that in the absence of trust conditions the temptation is to introduce checklists), paradoxically, in situations where trust is high there is likely to be a corresponding lack of mechanisms to deal with shock\ surprise events. In order to recover from such potential interruptions then a check list, which a temporary worker or “untrusted” (higher risk) member of staff could use, would actually seem appropriate; the same suggestion (checklist) at different ends of the risk spectrum.

My next research question was- where is there evidence of a “sweet spot” in terms of organizational trust? The firefighter studies of Klein (1989) Weick (2013) and Weick & Putnam (2006) provided this evidence. The fire fighter studies, although approached from differing but overlapping perspectives, conclude similar things-

  • Firefighters don’t make decisions, they simply “know what to do”
  • Firefighters apply intuition, sizing up situations, recalling an analogue from memory, and applying a method “most likely to work here”
  • The applied method is applied with “doubt”, a preparedness for uncertainty
  • The doubt allows the method to be improvised and adapted as events unfold

It could be argued that firefighters trust there intuition, but with doubt. The firefighters sit on a very different place on the risk spectrum; they have enough trust to confidentially act, but have enough doubt that they are able to improvise as expectations become violated. I would suggest they epitomised resilience.

With this new frame of trust in mind I conducted the Construction Manager research. The basic premise of the work was to reduce the cognitive load the manager was under by constant “what should I do next?” type questions. When we (I and the manager) had begun talking about his team he, without any prompting, began to divide his team into those he trusted to “get on with things” and those who he did not trust to make independent decisions. The challenge here was- what does a “trusted” member of his team do to make them be perceived as low risk on the spectrum? In short, and to paraphrase Weick (2013) the “trusted” approached each day as though it was going to be a bad day. In other words, they placed very little trust in things going well and so were prepared to improvise. It’s now quite easy to see why they accounted for hardly any “what should I do next?” type of questions; they were prepared for the unexpected.

By contrast, those members of the manager’s team who placed the higher levels of cognitive load simply assumed “everything would be ok”. The research reduced the “trusted” behaviours into simple rules which hopefully any member of the team could use. An example is applying a three stage rule of thumb which the “trusted” members of the team apply when making sense of a construction solution on site- visualise, test, adapt. This rule of thumb was indicative of how the “trusted” made sense of challenges-they would intuitively come up with a method of working, they would visualize how it would it play out on this particular site, they would test their assumptions with some minor experimentation, and then they would adapt their original method of working to the specifics of the site conditions. The basic idea is to change the relationship with trust, by adding doubt (visualize, test, adapt) to increase recovery from interruptions.

This article has discussed trust and come up with a trust paradox-not enough trust and it’s barely possible to act and move forward, too much trust and unexpected interruptions make recovery difficult or impossible. The sweet spot is trust with doubt, and this what I would conclude- If trust is a cocoon against risk, then doubt is a cocoon against trust.



Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Polity Press

Brockman, J (Ed.) (2013) Thinking: The New Science of Decision Making, Problem Solving and Prediction. Harper Perennial. Containing Klein, G. & Kahneman, D.

Klein, G.A. (1989) Recognition-primed decisions. In W.B Rousse (Ed.) Advances in man-machine systems research (Vol. 5. Pp. 47-92). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Weick, K.E. (2009) Making Sense of the Organization- The Impermanent Organization (Vol.2). Wiley

Weick, K.E. Putnam,T.(2006) Eastern Wisdom and Western Knowledge. Journal of Management Inquiry. Vol. 15. No.3.

2 Responses to “How Trust influences Decision Making”


  1. Levels of Reliability & Decision Making | Echo Breaker Research & Analysis - October 31, 2014

    […] Previous article  […]

  2. Health Care and the Tacit Database | Echo Breaker - May 24, 2016

    […] Tacit data provides insight on how frontline workers make sense of situations. If the sense making is shared, then staff feel more confident they are on the same page when they share information (patient handovers for example). This builds trust in teams, reducing the need to frequently re-check instructions, and focus on patient care. Examples of our work in this area is here and here. […]

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