Trust: The Lifeblood of a Healthy Society

A collapse of trust threatens every organization it afflicts, including a nation
By Scott Mann, Rooftop Leadership Training
May 9, 2019 Updated: May 9, 2019

Back in 2010, we were conducting a mission called Village Stability Operations. It was the largest community engagement ever done in Afghanistan. It involved Green Berets, Navy SEALs, other special operations forces, and infantry units working with rural tribes and clans throughout Afghanistan to stand up on their own to push back against the Taliban and take their communities back. Eventually, we would connect to the Afghan government and create a vast blanket of stability across the country.

It did pretty well until we walked away from the program in 2012–2013. We left a lot of people out there hanging, similar to what we did in Vietnam. The program collapsed under its own weight. We learned a lot in doing that program, lessons both bad and good.

One of the main things I remember about that experience was that in most of the communities we went into, there were massive fissures between different family groups that lived in each village.

They were competing over resources and honor, to both protect what they had and to acquire more. Frankly, most of these tribal feuds had been going on for decades, and in some cases, centuries. These trust gaps were so pervasive that you could not get any level of stability. The efficiency of the village was completely gone and the speed by which the village could make decisions was sluggish.

Until those trust gaps were bridged by responsible leaders, these communities would always be at risk for exploitation by Taliban and other bad actors. That was what we found ourselves facing day after day in these rough communities. We had to bridge those gaps and find ways to restore, maintain, and build trust.

That risk for exploitation is a reality facing many organizations here at home. Six years after retiring from the Army, I’m seeing a lot of similarities here at home with all of those Afghanistan villages that seemed to be under siege from within. You don’t have to look that far to see that there are a lot more privacy fences in this world than there are front porches.

In fact, Gallup took a poll in 1972 that found one-third of Americans said they don’t trust their neighbor. Today it’s up to two-thirds. Another Gallup poll found that 77 percent of Americans believe the country is divided.

We have an epic erosion of trust. At the institutional level, we don’t trust the media. We don’t trust politicians. We don’t trust bankers. We don’t trust the mortgage industry. All these pillars of leadership that once held our society together are crumbling. That’s bad for a free society, but do you want to know what’s even worse than not trusting our institutional leaders?

We don’t trust each other. We don’t trust our neighbors like we used to. The trust that we’ve always had in this country, where individuals can trust beyond their in-group, beyond their race, their religion—that’s eroding.

We’re going back to what’s known as “bonding trust.” Bonding trust is the old, primal, tribal form of trust where you only trust the people in your family, clan, or tribe. You only trust the people who look like you and believe what you believe.

It is very, very turbulent for an organization—for a nationto have that. Think about your office, your corporation, your team: Do you see in-groups and out-groups competing overtly for budget or status?

Do you see people talking smack about each other? What’s the impact of that? This goes far beyond healthy competition. It erodes the unifying vision of the company or organization. It creates chaos and instability. People don’t feel safe and the speed of trust goes way down.

When trust is high, you have increased efficiency, increased speed, lower costs. When trust is low, you have higher costs and slower speed in getting things done. It’s measurable. Bonding trust, which is when in-groups and out-groups are competing with each other inside an organization for their own personal agendas, causes serious organizational inefficiency.

When you have “bridging trust,” where leaders and individuals can trust beyond their group, beyond their skin color, and beyond their socioeconomic status because they’re rallied around a unified vision they can all slap the table and agree on, it will bring an organization to its feet and increase its speed.

As a leader, look around your organization and observe which one you have—bonding trust or bridging trust? Do you have a vision that unifies your different groups? Or are they all circling wagons and sharpening their knives? You’d better know as a leader, because if you don’t, the same way that many of those villages were chewed up from the inside out in Afghanistan, the same can happen to your outfit.

Bonding trust or bridging trust? It’s time to choose.

Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He is the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on TV and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit RooftopLeadership.com

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