Teamwork: Built on trust

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

Some years ago, in my time as a professional military education instructor, I encountered the concept of the elements of a healthy team spirit. While the PME curriculum is a bit different today, the concept still holds true.

The elements are basic, but have far-reaching impacts. They also explain, in large part, why conflict occurs. At the center of this model is trust, and each of the elements impact whether trust is gained or lost. My focus will be on the impact of these elements rather than just listing them.

There are many things that comprise a healthy team, but ethical behavior, the first element of a healthy team spirit, is a must. Key to ethical behaviors are the accepted norms of the group. When an individual strays from these norms, conflict will occur. For example, when a team is working on a project, multiple players are involved. If one teammate takes credit for what many of the team members accomplished, this can easily be viewed as unethical. This leads to a breakdown in the team and can lead to a team not accomplishing the mission or not performing at their true potential. Each teammate must put the team first and conduct themselves ethically if a team is to succeed. Think about it, when you see someone do something that you feel is shady, do you really trust them?

The very nature of our military relies on ethical behaviors to build effective teams, but it also depends on cooperation. Simply put, teammates must cooperate with each other to succeed. No one succeeds alone, and we must rely on others to accomplish our mission. Lack of cooperation will significantly hamper any team. Conversely, when cooperation occurs, great things are possible, teams succeed, and they often accomplish more than expected. Our military relies on cooperation to function, and there are examples here on Buckley.

When you think about it, is there really a mission performed on base that doesn’t rely on cooperation from another unit or group? The many successful events we enjoy on base are great examples of cooperation -- the base picnic, Funfest and Diversity Day being just a few. When teammates fail to cooperate, conflict is certain to surface, and, ultimately, a team can fail.

Much like cooperation, information sharing is a key component to any team’s success. This means communication up, down and laterally in a team or unit. When information is held by a teammate and not shared, especially if that information is needed to do a job, it breaks down effectiveness and causes conflict. Conflict also results if information is passed to one teammate but not to others. To be effective, information needs to be shared with all team members affected to promote trust.

Again, there are examples of information sharing on base, such as the integration of intelligence and operations, our force support squadron keeping us up to date on force management issues, and each wing stand up meeting. Sharing information is critical for our team to function.

Critical judgment is also an important element of a healthy team. When we put together different people on a team, differing opinions are bound to occur. This is normal and, if embraced, will result in better decisions. Critical judgment is constructive as long as it is aimed at the goal the team wants to accomplish. If a team is healthy, differing opinions or ideas are not taken as negative, but are welcomed. When this behavior is shut down or a leader doesn’t invite it – or even worse discourages it – the team will be less effective and trust is eroded. A high-functioning team identifies with the fact that the task at hand is more important than an ego, and critical judgment is a normal part of their interaction. It is important to state that critical judgment is aimed at the task at hand and never aimed at judging a person. Simply put, healthy teams that employ critical judgment are more effective, and trust is reinforced.

The effectiveness of every team is usually traced back to trust. Whether or not trust is present, ethical behaviors, cooperation, information sharing and critical judgment still impact a team’s performance. We often overcomplicate the issue, but conflict usually stems from a lack of trust. When people behave in an ethical manner, trust is built; the opposite is true when they take unethical or selfish actions.

Cooperation builds trust, and lack of it reduces trust. Information sharing is critical, and when people share information, trust is built; when they hold it to themselves or are exclusive with whom they share it, trust is reduced. Finally, critical judgment builds trust and motivation; discouraging it reduces effectiveness and trust. Each leader’s goal should be to remain a highly effective member of his or her team, and if we keep these elements in mind, that can and will be a reality.