Trust can be a good thing in business, but some leaders, like Bernie Madoff, are worthy of distrust. The question is, when connecting the dots on a suspicion at work, how can you be sure you're right?

"The human brain is really hardwired to seek out and overweight certain kinds of information," says social psychologist Roderick Kramer. As he writes in a new paper, "Misconnecting the Dots: Origins and Dynamics of Outgroup Paranoia," there are psychological factors at work that lead people to inflate or misconstrue suspicions when it's not even warranted. Here are three types of misperceptions you should note:

Personalizing interactions: "People begin to read their own personal story into a situation," says Kramer. For instance, they'll say, "The reason I wasn’t invited to that meeting is because they all discussed it and actively decided to exclude me."

Thinking the worst: "We often make paranoid attributions for benign behaviors," he says. "A lot of us have experienced this around email. I send an email to my superior, and they don’t get back to me right away. And I begin to ruminate about why--they’re mad at me, I've disappointed them, they're punishing me--when in fact they may be busy and not even reading email."

Conspiracy theories: "This tends to be social in nature," says Kramer. "My colleague didn't get back to me, but come to think of it my boss didn’t either--suddenly I begin to put those pieces together and think, 'Oh, I’m not going to get that promotion.' "

So how do you keep your suspicions from spinning out of control? "Just knowing the nature of these biases and the psychological factors that feed them allows you to begin to compensate for those," says Kramer. Here, he offers some de-biasing strategies to avoid misconnecting the dots:

Be mindful of status 

Those with fewer resources or less power have a tendency toward hypervigilance, a psychological factor that can exacerbate misperceptions, says Kramer. "Lower status groups tend to look around vigilantly for any evidence to support their theory, because they have a lot to lose if they get it wrong," he says. In a study Kramer conducted on the graduate student/faculty relationship, for example, he found that graduate students spent a lot more time worried about how the relationship was going. "Not surprisingly, the faculty were busy thinking about the people they’re accountable to, not the lower status people." 

Get the facts 

Once you've come to a conclusion, try to prove yourself wrong, says Kramer. A whole body of research suggests that people tend to seek confirmatory evidence to the exclusion of other information. "It’s a natural thing we do," he says, "but a more rational approach is to work very hard to gather unbiased data, including information that might disconfirm your interpretation--scientists and doctors are trained to do this."

Talk to the enemy

"Conspiracy theorists tend to go to websites they agree with and share information with like-minded people," says Kramer. But you have a better chance of finding the truth if you constantly reassess your interpretation. "There is actually some wisdom in keeping track of what your enemies are doing," he says.

Avoid isolation

Keeping suspicions to yourself--or confined to a few friends who share your point of view--can fuel paranoia, says Kramer. One of the common mistakes, especially among presidents like Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson, was surrounding themselves with yes-men. "It's important to be sure you’re getting a panoply of information. You have to think about the social network you’re in--is it really serving you well?”

This piece was originally published by Stanford Business. Follow GSB @StanfordBiz

Published on: Aug 6, 2014