Trust: The foundation of a high performing organization

Col. John Langell, official photo, U.S. Air Force

Col. John Langell, official photo, U.S. Air Force

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Trust is an intangible characteristic based on a belief that the person, group or organization bestowed with that trust will act in the best interests of those who have faithfully provided it.  Trust is the bedrock upon which the Air Force functions.

Internally, we trust our leaders will act in the best interest of our nation, place the needs of the mission above their own and provide for the welfare of the Airmen in their charge. We trust our team members are well-trained and competent wingmen that can be counted on to perform with excellence and integrity, even in the face of mortal danger.

Externally, our nation entrusts us with the judicious use of immense power to serve the best interests of the American people, ensuring our freedoms while abiding by acceptable moral and ethical standards.

Both internal and external organizational trust is built on the faithful belief we will place the interests of others above our own in the performance of our duties.

Two key forms of trust that drive our operational performance are reciprocal trust and associative trust. 

Reciprocal trust is the form of trust we rely upon in day-to-day operations.  It is the trust that exists between leaders and their organization, supervisors and their subordinates and within and between teams.

In reciprocal trust, individuals have a faithful belief that their leaders and teammates can be counted upon to be good wingmen. Through our daily interactions, this trust can be strengthened or weakened based on our performance and how we choose to live our lives.

Reciprocal trust can be easily lost as it is based on a mutual belief that each will serve the best interests of others and of the organization.  When either is perceived to breach that faith, trust is lost or diminished and with it, mission effectiveness.

It is incumbent upon Air Force leaders and supervisors to ensure their organizations establish a culture that nurtures trust. Creation of a culture of trust will empower everyone within the organization to act swiftly to identify and correct actions as well as perceptions that risk the loss of trust and its degradation of operational effectiveness.

All trust must be earned and maintained, however. Unlike reciprocal trust that is earned or lost by individuals actively performing within an organization, associative trust is bestowed upon all individuals within the organization based on both the actions of our predecessors and of ourselves.

We see this internally when a new commander takes control of a unit. The initial trust granted to that commander is based on the level of performance and trust earned by his or her predecessors.  The preconditions established by the previous commanders creates the baseline level of trust that the new commander will either build upon or lose through the level of reciprocal trust they engender through their actions.

Associative trust is an incredibly powerful and lasting form of trust.  It is the looking glass through which the nation we serve views us as a whole.

Many of us have seen the impact of associative trust when a uniformed Airman receives a standing applause and sincere gestures of gratitude for their service by the public when boarding a commercial airplane.  These gestures of respect are based on foundational associative trust.  Except in rare instances, the Airman receiving the accolades and his or her individual accomplishments are unknown to the public.  Instead, they are receiving the gratitude earned through the actions of a long history of Airmen inspired by our core values who have served before us.

What we must never forget is that although we benefit from associative trust due to the actions of others, our every action may contribute to earning and shaping the associative trust granted to future Airmen.  Each time one of us does something positive, whether it is an act of heroism in battle, volunteering in the community or helping others in need, it increases the value of our associative trust and how the public perceives American Airmen. And each time an Airman fails to live by our core values either on duty or in their private lives, it can diminish the associative trust we are all granted.

As servants to the nation, the public doesn’t differentiate between what we do in or out of uniform.  As American Airmen, we are always in our nation’s spotlight and held to a higher standard. When one of us demonstrates poor conduct, is disrespectful, unethical or unlawful in our actions, we all suffer a loss of trust.

Airmen who live by the Air Force core values and build organizational trust at all levels ensure we are the world’s greatest Air Force now and in the future.