How teams build trust for peak performance

Trust in your teammates can help you reach optimal performance. Whether you’re active duty or a reservist, team performance is critical to mission success. In fact, a high level of trust in military teams is associated with improved cohesion, higher morale, and greater achievement. Why? Well, in situations involving risk, vulnerability, or uncertainty—like those many Service Members face—to know you can count on others around you is how you can stay focused on the task at hand. But the kicker is, in high stress and intense environments, it’s actually harder to keep up the behaviors that build team trust. So, you’ll need to make an extra effort when it really counts.

What does “trust” really mean?

In a broad sense, you can think of trust as a positive expectation of others that helps you to be open and vulnerable. More specifically, there are a few different types of trust that can show up depending on the context.

  • Dependability is mostly about trusting the actions of others. For example, do they keep their word and honor their commitments? It’s about believing someone is reliable, and you can count on her or him to show up as expected.
  • Physical trust is about feeling comfortable trusting others with your stuff or putting your physical safety in someone else’s hands. When it comes to military teams, this a big one. Even in non-combat situations, you might have to entrust your physical safety to your unit members—whether it’s through PT or other training exercises.
  • Emotional trust is a confidence you might have with someone close such as your partner, battle buddy, or longtime friend. And you feel at ease sharing your true feelings or thoughts because you know the other person won’t use them against you. Emotional trust is also about believing in others’ good intentions and knowing they support you and have your back.
  • Team trust is believing all your teammates are working towards the good of the whole, rather than their own personal interests. In addition, teammates are confident about each other’s skills, capabilities, and overall competence. Team trust is particularly important for performance because without it, you might spend more time questioning others’ intentions and micromanaging their responsibilities instead of your own.

How do you build trust in military teams?

There are many ways to build trust within a work team, your unit, or other workgroup. But it’s important to note trust is dynamic and ever changing, so think about evaluating the levels of trust in your team regularly.

To start, you build group trust with time and proximity. Over time, groups go from “forming,” to “storming” (period of conflict while teammates adjust to the group dynamic), to “norming” (period when trust and cohesion start to develop), to “performing.” Again, this is a process that simply takes time as you practice working closely together. To help your group grow closer through these stages, try some tactics to build group trust.

Leadership is a crucial piece of building trust in military teams too. Military units might not always have the luxury of taking the time to reach the “performing” stage before a mission, so the element of leadership is particularly important to help build trust quickly. Leaders must set the example by displaying trustworthiness and embodying strong interpersonal leadership traits. It’s only when team members trust their leadership that they’re willing to put it all on the line to achieve the team goal.

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