Over the past 15 months, I experienced two moments of overwhelming pride as I had the honor of commissioning, not one, but both of my sons into a life of military service. Now my sons are quite different people. One prefers suits and ties, the other shorts and tees. One was a television host, the other an excellent multi-sport athlete. Though different in culture and style, they love and trust one another and would lay down their lives for the other – but not without a little “smack” talk thrown in. The younger, an Army Military Policeman, outranks his older brother, a brand-new Space Force 2nd Lt. by exactly 364 days, a fact that comes up daily. Their competition only intensifies when they compare their training (you had it so easy, brah), pick at each other’s uniforms (“beam me up, Scotty”), and question the sanity of the path they chose (“Bro, my bases include Colorado, California and Florida…… and yours are where again?”). As an Air Force veteran, I find their exchanges enlightening … and amusing.
Watching their (mostly) good-natured banter, I reflected on the correlation between their relationship and the pride and competition I have seen between military members, squadrons, wings, bases, and the services; people and groups who should automatically trust each other and work together, but sometimes fall short. Team pride can be good-natured and positive as it builds camaraderie, esprit de corps, and resilience. But rejecting people outside our group, who do not look or think like us, can be negative and counterproductive—sowing distrust, crippling the mission, and crushing its most important asset, its people. The key to overcoming these divisions depends on building trust and transparency.
The diversity found in our military provides great strength but has the potential to be a barrier to success. From an organizational perspective, our military branches can be complex, stove-piped, and clannish. Look at our uniforms: we rightly have pride in patches and badges, insignia designed to highlight the diverse groups within the services that carry deep meaning about our training, history, and traditions. Sometimes these differences result in the same lighthearted, (mostly) positive banter and competition I see in my sons, but sometimes it grows intensely negative. As a result, we may think those outside our tribe or service are wrong, incompetent, and even inferior. When groups and cultures clash and communication lines break down, tensions rise.
Add in the complex issues we see in modern society related to religion, race, gender, sexual identity, and political viewpoints and a team that is supposed to get along sometimes has challenges getting the mission done.
Successful organizations depend on the varied opinions, outlooks, and experiences that every member of the team (and some outside the team) provides to solve challenging issues. We must see these different points of view as a positive and believe everyone has something to bring to the table. During the current COVID-19 situation companies and organizations and their people answered the challenges by being flexible and innovative. Work from home? OK sure, we can adapt, what do you need? Shift our business model? OK, let us get together as a team and find a way. And on both sides, there must be trust: can we, the employer, trust you, the employee, to work from home and get the job done. Can we, the employees, trust you the employer, to let us be part of the solution as we shift our business. And these changes come amid a shifting demographic landscape where our workforce is growing more diverse. As I see it, leaders can fear our country’s dynamic workforce as a hindrance or embrace it as a tool to unlock opportunities for larger markets, discover innovative solutions, drive costs down, and build a future that not only works NOW, but is also sustainable for the future. So how does a diverse team succeed? It depends on a foundation of trust.
How do we overcome our tendency to distrust those who do not look or think like us or come from outside our group and build that foundation? Creating the trust your team needs to succeed, both internally and externally, depends equally on articulating a common, shared purpose and must be earned through transparent, persistent relationships. In the military, we saw much of our conflict grew when we were at home, simply training. During those times, it was easy to criticize the other parts of our team. We found the most cohesiveness when we deployed and shared a common mission across units and services. As we worked closer together, the mission united us and lifted us above petty conflicts. Even though we had a common purpose, we still sometimes mistrusted those “others”, but our proximity allowed us to overcome our issues through transparency and persistence.
When I was stationed at the Pentagon and working with our international partners, I learned first-hand about the power of earning trust through transparency and persistence. As part of an amazing team of Air Force international affairs professionals, I plunged into a world where we worked close relationships with over 100 air forces daily. The representatives of these air forces owed THEIR allegiance to THEIR particular national interests, THEIR national goals and, like us, THEIR own values and biases. So, how did we find common purpose with a group this diverse? We did this by building upon long-standing bedrock relationships that had well-defined goals and purposes, like those we share with our NATO allies or with Pacific partners in Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. We also explored newer relationships with states formerly aligned with the Soviet bloc and in India as its stance allowed talks with the US and built a common purpose from those discussions.
Our partners made important, sensitive requests for technology transfers, shared training, cooperative research through our team. To build trust, our Air Force team made a commitment to transparency with our partners. We did our best to fully understand what our partner wanted, to make sure the request was heard by the United States government and did our utmost to help them get what they wanted. We gave them honest feedback about their request and as much information about the process as we could. While we made it clear we worked for the United States Air Force, we focused on finding the right way to say yes.
Yet, by the difficult nature of their requests, sometimes with little or no explanation from us, we had to tell our partners no. We consistently and persistently made it clear we were saying no to the request, not the relationship. The trust we built with our partners allowed us to continue working collaboratively. On many occasions, I told our closest allies that the United States could not meet their request and then the next day was able to ask our ally for something on behalf of the United States. The commitment, the persistence we showed for these relationships demonstrated to our partners that we wanted a long-term relationship, not just a quick transaction. Through trust, persistent transparent communication, and common purpose, we overcame our disagreements and our relationships flourished.
Whether in an international, organizational, or brotherly relationship, building trust requires leaders to articulate a common, shared purpose nurtured by transparent and persistent connections. And my sons’ latest competition? Who gets to lead more people and who gets to do it first. And they are looking forward to that challenge.