What do trustless virtual teams and pilots have in common?

Trustless virtual teams can be a hard pill to swallow for dispersed organizations.

Can we really find a system to cement trust? Can we tick off trust on the list of virtual teams advantages and disadvantages in the modern workplace?

Transparency and trust are critical when working on a global digital market and. Unless you support it by complex legal agreements, you assume trust and often take it for granted.

But ties that you build for a long time during multiple joint projects which coexist in the comfort of the known are a challenge in virtual teams.

airplane pilots and trustless virtual teams

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When we are approaching a new project or person, our senses are heightened and we pay each task double the attention it deserves. In companies that use virtual teams, as work becomes a routine, staff vigilance reduces and they become more prone to human errors.

The comfort of solid, long-lasting, and successful virtual teams can increase the tendency for slips and biases. An error can cost a digital project tens of thousands of dollars. A pilot’s error can cost hundreds of lives.

Why the Two Same Pilots Never Fly Together More than Twice

There are plenty of myths about pilots. One is that they lead a glamorous life full of exciting travel to exotic destinations with generous perks and rewards. Another is that they let autopilots ride planes while they sit and do nothing.

The truth is somewhat different. Pilots have rigorous training and working schedules which often affect their circadian rhythms and personal lives.

They need to take and pass regular strict medicals. They must be prepared to make decisions and give commands to a complex computer system. Therefore, in a way, pilots are truly charismatic superheroes. Yet, on the other hand, they are human and can make mistakes.

two pilots in a cabin make for a trustless virtual team

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To reduce the odds of things going in the wrong direction, airlines have adopted a peculiar practice. They forbid the same people flying together more than twice.

Therefore, it might be prime time to borrow the wisdom of airline professionals. After all, don’t we trust with our lives more than 100,000 times a day?

But how is this airline solution relevant to trustless virtual teams?

Typical Hindrances to Trust in Pilot Teams

Chesley Sullenberger, the famous flying veteran who safely landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January 2009, was indeed a superhero. However, he owes the miracle happy end of the flight that suffered a strike by a flock of Canadian geese to his team.

He made wise decisions. But he put them in practice with the help of his copilot, flight attendants, passengers, and the New York Waterway crew. In Sully’s own words, “the successful landing was a result of good judgment, experience, skill — and the efforts of many.”

Taught by practical experience, airlines vastly invest in flight safety. Hence, they keep two, sometimes even three pilots in the cockpit as a standard practice.

The usual pilot crew consists of a:

  • Captain, who is in charge of flying the plane. The main role includes managing controls, steering the plane, and programming the autopilot, and a
  • Copilot or a first officer. He acts as a monitoring pilot, keeps in check everything the first officer does, communicates with air traffic control, and makes sure all engine parameters are fine.

Both officers know their duties well. Thanks to their mutual effort, hundreds of thousands of flights per day safely reach their destinations.

Hierarchy in the decision-making process is well-defined. It gives precedence to the senior pilot but also leaves space for the copilot to challenge the captain’s decisions.

Unfortunately, the airline history marks a few occasions on which copilots have failed to contradict the captain’s course of action, resulting in fatal accidents. A rigid hierarchy can often be a problem. Namely, it can cause inexperienced copilots to doubt their own reason, despite the facts from the field that present solid evidence that they are right.

How Cognitive Biases Affect Pilot’s Decisions

Human cognitive biases play a major role in how people perceive a situation. There are over a hundred of them. Pilots are vulnerable to many.

Common cockpit biases include:

  • Ambiguity effect, which means choosing the safer, more comfortable option between an old and a new course of action.
  • Anchoring bias can make pilots rely heavily on the first piece of information they receive, discarding additional input with less value.
  • Attentional tunneling can make them blind to what is happening outside a narrow attention focus.
  • Confirmation bias is a tendency to believe information that supports a current mental model rather than one that contradicts it.
  • Selective perception bias, which makes it difficult for a person to accept and remember the difficult of stressful information.

Pilots are also prone to automaticity or optimism, as well as to the “halo” effect and the false-consensus bias, which are even more important in a group setting.

Language can be an extra hindrance. Although aviation rules require full professional proficiency from pilots, not everyone speaks perfect English. Occasional misunderstandings are difficult to prevent.

passengers in plane rows

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Considering all these “faulty” ways of mental processing, it is clear that having two pilots in the cockpit promotes passenger’s safety in a big way. Moreover, two minds who are not used to a role think clearer than one and are more alert and dedicated to the task at hand. Therefore, airline companies avoid putting the same two pilots in the cockpit more than twice.

Transparency in Trustless Virtual Teams

Can two or more people that are working together in virtual teams in the workplace become too comfortable and adopt mental patterns that affect their decision making as individuals, as well as in a group?

Simply put, yes. Agile teams suffer from their own set of cognitive biases, such as information bias, in-group bias, and the detrimental bias blind spot, which is the inability to spot one’s own biases.

Thanks to the concept of the beginner’s mind, known in Zen Buddhism as “Shoshin”, trustless virtual teams are less likely to fall into familiarity patterns and are more likely to be open, eager, and non-judgemental.

How to Deal with Trust in Virtual Teams

Although the flash team technology enables setting clear hierarchical projects, this is far from the compact-style hierarchy typical to corporations and large organizations. Hierarchy in virtual teams is more project-based and task-based than role-based. Consequently, although a particular expert may have a leader’s position in one team, they can be just a collaborator in another. Such atypical, sporadic seniority eliminates the possibility of setting into a role and becoming an easy target to one’s own human frailties.

As one of the most important challenges of virtual teams, trust is important, but it shouldn’t be idealized. People are inclined to err and be biased, regardless of their professional acumen and task readiness.

In a group setting, biases and mistakes can amount to a whole new risk level. Consequently, even if people come to work with the best intentions at heart, imperfection takes its toll, and accidents happen.

If you need to compile a remote virtual team and worry constantly about how trust works in a concrete project, you’ll drain your resources quickly.

One way of solving trust and transparency in virtual teams is to let technology give you a hand. With their quick compiling characteristics, flash teams are a practical method to reduce many of these concerns. In turn, you can use your energy to increase the functional value of your products and services.


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