A Tip From the Military on Building Team Trust

Last Updated Aug 7, 2009 9:42 AM EDT

While some of us may think of work as war, we rarely put our life or those of team members on the line getting the Q3 numbers in shape. It's different in the military. There, team members literally depend on each other to stay alive.

Can we in business engender the same trust among team members that soldiers in the field rely upon? Maybe not to the emotional extent that military personnel can feel for each other, but certainly there are lessons to be learned from the military experience that can help any organization, says Lieutenant Colonel Diane Ryan, writing on Harvard Business Publishing.

The big takeaway: Trust is a two-way street. Each team member must earn the trust of others. You as a manager or team leader can't command that it happen. Factors contributing to increased trust include shared values, relationships that foster cooperation, and perceived competence, Ryan says.

To get there, your organization should be asking 6 Questions to Help You Build Trust on Your Team.

Here are three of them:

  1. What are my organization/profession's shared values and culture?
  2. Have these values been articulated within the organization to the point they are internalized and go without saying?
  3. How much do I know about my employees and their families and how well do they know me?
I find this advice extremely useful. When I thought about trust-building before, my focus was on what I as an individual could do to build a strong team. Ryan's insights into the role of an organization in emphasizing shared values is a really powerful way to think about this issue.

Related Reading: When Good Teams Go Bad
Harvard Business School professor Scott Snook, a former military man, coauthors a case study about an Army crew team losing its mojo.

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.