Trusting Us and Trusting Them – A Leader’s Role – Part 1
By Maj Will Meddings
In 2015 the NATO Kabul Security Force created a joint UK-US integrated command battalion to provide security in Kabul. With a UK commander and a US Command Sergeant Major, it was the first integrated unit like this since the Korean war. The unit itself had two British and three US companies. One British company had an Australian platoon and an Army Reserve platoon. But at least they all spoke English. The final company in the battalion was a Mongolian company with less than ten English speakers.
When you go to war you want to trust the team next to you. When they are from another nation, even if they are within the same unit with the same mission, it’s difficult. In Kabul, we got there but it took time and effort. We built strong, trusting relationships that helped up operate better together.
One of the times when trust is most important and yet most difficult to foster is when two separate and culturally different teams have to work together on a common goal. Whether your team is working with another branch, corps, service or nation, simply being on the same side isn’t enough to build trust. Any commander who’s had to bring their team together with an ‘outsider’ team will know how hard it can be.
The Trust Tax
You don’t just want to build trust with other teams because it makes you feel better or makes life more sociable. There’s a whole raft of research showing that high-trust relationships give faster, more efficient and better quality results.
Covey and Merrill in their book ‘The Speed of Trust’ have a great analogy for a low-trust relationship. It’s like paying a ‘trust tax’. You need trust when you make yourself vulnerable to others. Trusting is a calculated risk (of being let down) in return for a reward (of greater performance). Each time you interact with someone you don’t trust, you have to check on them (which takes time). You have to worry about if they will deliver (which causes stress) and you have to plan against them letting you down (which uses thinking capacity).
All these things are taxes on your scare resources. You can see the cost of the trust tax when you think about how military teams trust each other by comparison to businesses. In business, a company would be foolish to begin work for a client based purely on their word that they will pay. Hence why businesses write contacts and pay costly lawyers: Business is low-trust. Writing and enforcing contracts creates a huge cost to business, a virtual tax on its transactions and relationships.
Trust between teams doesn’t happen by itself. Several factors help build it. Based on ‘The Speed of Trust’ I’ve thought of trust like an equation:
Trust = Integrity x Intent x Capability x Proven Results
If you want to be trusted you need all four of the factors. Score low on any of them and it doesn’t matter how great you are at the others. You won’t be trusted. You need integrity, so people trust you will do the right thing; An intent to do what you promise and not square yourself away at others’ expense; the capability (and good judgement) to come through on your intent; and proven results that proves you’ve done it well before.
It’s one of the reasons it sucks to be a new 2Lt. You need to prove your integrity and your intent to put your team first. In spite of your tough Phase 1 and 2 training (which definitely helps), your lack of experience means you haven’t yet demonstrated high capability. And of course you simply don’t yet have any proven results.
When your team starts to work alongside another team, say from another nation, your team – in factboth teams – have exactly the same issue: unproven integrity, intent, capability and track record. A close bond of trust will take time to build up. So what do you do? In 2013 I did research in inter-team trust. The research, and my experience, suggests that the five factors below are important to building trust. The quotes come directly from teams who spoke to me about what inter-team trust meant to them.
Always Deliver on Promises
By far the most important factor that builds trust is delivering to promises. Research shows it’s strongly linked trust and most high-trust teams talk about this. Sadly, there’s no short cut. You and your team have to deliver on what you say you will – it proves integrity, capability and creates proven results. The kind of words that teams use shows how powerful delivering on promises is:
“They give me more than arguments as to why they can do it. They’ve showed me that they can deliver in tough situations, both for me and for the team.”
Even delivering on small promises has an effect, and failing to deliver on small promises (especially repeatedly) really nails your trustworthiness. So at the start, promise carefully; if you are sure you can deliver, promise it and then make sure your team knows how important it is. There is nothing worse than promising to your new buddies that your team will deliver but then finding your team doesn’t really buy into it.
A top tip is to find something you can promise that means a lot to the other team but costs you little to deliver. I still remember a US Army officer promising to bring me back some kit from the US Embassy when he went there on his next monthly J2 briefing. A month later, he tracked me down. It was nothing – it barely cost him anything. But he delivered on his word and I trusted him (and the int cell) a little more. On a different tour, another team said they’d be there to dig us out of a tight contact if we needed them. They delivered, at high risk to themselves, and we trusted them implicitly after that.
Build Rapport and Mutual Understanding
It’s no surprise that close personal relationships help build trust. It’s the second biggest factor in building trust between teams. When people get to know each other they break down barriers, understand each other and realise how much they have in common. Sometimes they even become friends. In terms of the trust equation, building rapport and mutual understanding helps uncover integrity and creates realisation that both sides have common intent. Again, the words used to describe this kind of trust are enlightening.
“I share common interests with my oppo, which helps me get a good feel for the person so I’m more certain about them.”
It might seem laughable that you trust your oppo from the other team because you both enjoy clay pigeon shooting (as was the case in the quote above). But hell, if he’s part of your ‘club’ or ‘tribe’ I guess he must be as good a guy as you, right?
“My oppo has a mutual understanding with me. He will take risks for me and trust me. With others, everything is done through [formal orders] and formal processes.”
If you need to build trust between your team and another team, or even trust within your team, then make sure your create space to get to know each other, either socially or professionally. It can’t feel forced, but have a joint social, a sports competition or a games night. Every soldier loves to fire other nations’ weapons and comparing them is an ideal opportunity to talk and build rapport. As a leader, engineer these cross-team opportunities whenever you can.
In the second part, here, I’ll explain the other three other factors and how, as a leader, you can use them to build trust between your team and other teams.