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BUILDING TRUST: a Chicken or Egg Dilemma

“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

The TRUST version: which comes first, trust or vulnerability?

When developing a High-Trust team during the Blue Angels’ pre-season Winter Training, there is as much or more work being done on the ground as in the air. It is during the rigorous preflight briefings and candid, sometimes interminable, postflight debriefs that the heavy lifting  in building trust is accomplished.

During the daily preflight briefing, each pilot will describe which maneuver he is having a problem with and will publicly declare his “specific goal” for that flight. (e.g., Blue Angel #2, the Right Wingman: “My specific goal is to exactly match the leader when we pitch-up on all our looping maneuvers today.”) It sends a message that we’re all trying to overcome personal challenges, all admitting deficiencies in our performance, all learning.

During formation flight, the wingmen will show vulnerability by turning off their smoke trail if they are out of position and move away from the formation. This tells everyone else in the formation, “I know I’m out of position and I’m admitting it.” The pilot will remain outside the formation with the smoke off until Blue Angel #4, the Slot Pilot and safety observer, clears him to rejoin the formation. When he is back in position, he turns his smoke back on.

This builds trust — if the wingman was out of position and didn’t know it, it would be a big problem; if the wingman was out of position and wouldn’t admit it, another big problem.

In the postflight debrief, the pilots figuratively take off their rank as they enter the room. Professional courtesy is still required, but everyone is viewed as an equal in evaluating the team’s performance and identifying areas for improvement. No family members, friends, or guests are allowed to attend the debrief, only those involved in the training flight or aerial demonstration.

This allows for greater candor and vulnerability.

Blue Angel #1, the flight leader, sets the tone and example. He starts the debrief with some overall comments on the flight and then admits to any major mistakes he may have made during the flight, especially if it compromised safety. There are two reasons for this:

  1. If someone had the bejesus scared out of them during the flight, it needs to be addressed and analyzed right away so it doesn’t happen again and also allow the associated emotions to subside. Until then, no learning will take place.
  2. By listing his mistakes, the leader shows vulnerability and the wingmen can assess his self-awareness of his performance. Trust grows as he admits his mistakes, accepts responsibility, and shows he his commited to improvement.

After the leader concludes his remarks, Blue Angel #2 follows with his list, then Blue Angel #3, and so on, until all six pilots, and all the support officers have listed their mistakes. The message each conveys:

A key indicator that the team is jelling is when someone admits a mistake that no one else would have known if he or she hadn’t mentioned it. They shared because they want everyone else to learn from their mistake and this reinforces the culture of trust and candor.

My old squadronmate and former NASA astronaut, Jeff Ashby, describes how he built trust and teamwork among his Shuttle crew by spending 11 days in the Utah wilderness together:

“I think the best way to get to know someone, whether it’s a brand new crew or someone that you’ve known maybe all your life and worked with, is to immerse yourself with that person for a period of days in a stressful environment…I think you have to get to the point where you disagree. And disagree at an emotional level. That is accelerated by adversity in my mind, which is why we took our crews to the canyons in winter. There was very little water, we had to chip through the ice on mud puddles to get drinking water. We had very few hours of daylight. And we had the cold to deal with….”

Also in Adam Grant’s “WorkLife” podcast, “How to Trust People You Don’t Like:”

“Anytime you’re working in a group on a difficult problem you’re going to have moments of stress. Knowing how people will react is key to building trust. Because you can’t trust someone whose behavior you can’t predict…

Stress doesn’t just teach us about each other. It also forces us to be vulnerable together…

When you think about getting to know people in a group, what comes first — trust or vulnerability? Most of us assume that you have to build trust in order to be vulnerable. But actually, the opposite is true.

Some teams try to build trust through activities like going through a maze blindfolded or doing trust falls. But that’s mostly friendly interaction and fake vulnerability. You’re all on good terms and you know the other people will catch you.

Dan Coyle distinguishes between the usual, shallow work-sponsored social events intended to build teamwork and the “deep fun” of challenging activities that actually build trust:

…fun comes in different flavors. There’s shallow fun, which is having that ping-pong tournament, going out and having a blast together. That’s wonderful, but that kind of wears off. A deep fun of actual connection to the experience and giving ownership over that experience to the whole group ends up being more powerful and contributing more to the bottom line.

Grant: Deep fun [to build trust] involves real vulnerability. You have intense interaction around solving hard problems with high stakes. Like a team of lawyers, trying to figure out how to present the best closing argument in a case. Or a team of mechanics trying to diagnose an engine failure. They might not say it’s fun in the moment, but they often look back on the challenge as a highlight of their job.

My experience has been that showing a little vulnerability begins to build trust and as trust grows people feel safer to be more vulnerable. It becomes an upward spiral of trust, confidence, and cohesion.

But someone has to go first, to take the risk of showing vulnerability, to start turning the flywheel of building High-Trust relationships.

One way to show vulnerability is to extend trust.

Be a High-Trust Leader: pick a challenging project, open up, and show some vulnerability (“This is going to be hard. I don’t have all the answers. I need your help.”). Be genuine; no faking. Set the example and make it safe for others to be vulnerable. Keep at it and watch your team line up and fly closer and closer as trust grows.

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