6 Questions to Help You Build Trust on Your Team
This post is part of our Frontline Leadership series, looking at what business leaders can learn from today's military.
The ongoing economic crisis coupled with the appearance of one scandalous headline after another describing the latest crook to run off with somebody's life savings have done much damage to Americans' ability to trust one another. While a fair amount of skepticism may be practical at times, building trust both between individuals and within organizations is absolutely critical to overall wellbeing and effectiveness. And nowhere is this requirement more important than in relationships in which the life of one person may, in specific situations, depend on the actions of another. That's why examining the processes of building and maintaining trust between military personnel in the extreme environment of combat may provide practical considerations that apply to leaders in many different contexts.
Perhaps most important is the understanding that trust must be a two-way street. While it is imperative that subordinates have trust in their leader, this will never happen without reciprocity. In a combat team, all members are mutually interdependent, meaning everyone has a specific job to do — jobs that often require a significant amount of risk to life or limb. Soldiers must trust their leader to make decisions that minimize risk where possible, and the leader must trust that soldiers will carry out their orders despite any hazards for the overall benefit of the team. Recent research by my West Point colleagues Colonels Tom Kolditz and Pat Sweeney indicates that there are several factors which influence and facilitate building this mutual trust building, including shared values, relationships that foster cooperation, and perceived competence.
For much of my own military career I took the trust-building process between myself and other soldiers, both leaders and subordinates, for granted. It was only after returning from my most recent deployment to Iraq and spending three years in the civilian world finishing my graduate degree that I began to sense that there was something special about how we cultivate trust in the Army. My first clue was when I had the occasion to ask a university administrator, himself a veteran, for a fairly substantial policy exception that I truthfully did not expect to be considered. When he granted my request without batting an eye I was taken aback. After I stammered out a surprised thank you, I exclaimed "But you don't even know me" to which he quickly replied "Oh I do know you, because I know what you stand for and I know you'll do the right thing." Our shared values served as a precursor for instantaneous mutual trust that developed and deepened over the course of our professional relationship. I recognized that this was not an isolated incident and that the values I share with my own leaders, peers and subordinates often serve as the figurative handshake upon which all subsequent trust is built.
In my experience these shared values facilitate cooperative relationships and intimacy at much faster rate in the military than in many civilian professions. There are many factors that might contribute to this phenomenon. Perhaps it's because we move around so much that we feel a sense of urgency to get to know each other more quickly. Maybe it's the time we spend together riding in dusty HMMWVs and sitting in foxholes sharing even the most mundane details of our lives in an attempt to pass the time until we get back to civilization. But mostly I think it's because we want to know almost everything about the people we potentially face death with. These deep personal relationships — that I have come to consider familial in many cases— cement the bonds of trust.
Inherent in both initial perceptions and long-term trust building is competence in the form of technical and tactical proficiency. In other words, do subordinates believe that a leader knows his or her job well enough so as not to needlessly jeopardize their safety and wellbeing? I vividly remember the pressure of leading my first convoy operation as a brand new lieutenant — ten hours through the hills and winding roads of the Bavaria. Although I exuded confidence (at least that's how I remember it), inside I was terrified of getting lost and ruining my credibility with the platoon forever — which thankfully did not occur. What I did not know at the time was that approximately 10 months later I would be executing a similar exercise across the Arabian Desert as part of Operation Desert Storm, where so much more was riding on my performance as a leader. Had I not demonstrated competence early on, my soldiers would have lacked trust in my ability to keep them from harm's way, and our overall effectiveness as a unit would have suffered tremendously.
While most businesses are not subject to circumstances similar to combat, many of the trust-building processes practiced in the military are nevertheless applicable, particularly when an organization faces crisis. Asking the following questions has the potential to facilitate trust building within your own organization:
- Do I place trust in my employees as a prerequisite to earning theirs?
- What are my organization/profession's shared values and culture?
- Have these values been articulated within the organization to the point they are internalized and go without saying?
- How much do I know about my employees and their families and how well do they know me?
- What experiences can I offer to increase cooperation and familiarity in ways that are appropriate and rewarding?
- And last but certainly not least, does my personal competence inspire trust in my subordinates?
Finding ways to build confidence in people who only have to look as far as the daily news to find numerous reasons why not to trust may be challenging, but ultimately well worth the effort.