November 04,2019 Facilitating Innovation

Trust Vulnerability and Playfulness

Trust Vulnerability and Playfulness

Forward Air Controllers

During the early days of the Vietnam Conflict, close air support proved a vital lifeline for ground troops isolated in dense jungles. When surrounded by Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army, the American soldier would be able to call in airstrikes and turn the tide of the battle. Early in the conflict, however, numerous fratricides occurred where soldiers called airstrikes too close to their own troops resulting in American casualties.

The Air Force responded by providing pilots to Army units to correctly call in airstrikes. These pilots were also given assistants that were radio operators, maintainers, and drivers. Known as Romads for short. These enlisted Airmen soon became adept at calling in airstrikes which led to the Air Force creating a Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) career field. This would let enlisted Airman control air and let pilots return to flying instead of supporting Army units on the ground.

Technical School

The Air Force knew that with the new career field that the individuals selected had to earn the respect of their Army units they were attached to. If they did not perform at high levels, they carried the designation of ineffective. This decreed that these new Romads would not only have to meet the Army standards but would have to exceed them. In turn, the TACP Fieldhouse was created in Hurlburt Field, Florida. Sergeants proceeded to run a 12-week training course designed to train on the basics of air control but to also weed out the weaker students. This led to a brutal experience that experienced a 60% fail rate for first-time students.

The Sergeants would take a diverse flight of 30 strangers and put them in scenarios that would force the team to cooperate to survive. Events were run that would try to expose weaknesses in teamwork. Individual performances and selfish actions were punished while unit cohesion was rewarded. This process of meshing the team together built a high level of trust amongst members. With that trust comes reliability and consistently of being able to depend upon one another. While still a macho subculture, it is also one where team members not only feel free to share but are expected to voice their opinions.

Emotional Milestones

There is a level of emotional milestones that a team must achieve to be creative together. The process begins with respect. By everyone on the team giving respect to one another, they will begin to trust one another. Trust leads to the sharing of ideas. Once trust is established the team will be able to be vulnerable with each other. The vulnerability enables the team to share ideas that are typically hidden because the ideas are so abnormal. These are the ideas that a team needs because it unlocks true creativity.

Vulnerability directly links to openness and idea generation. This creates a culture that eliminates social anxiety. The pressure of social judgment hinders teams and stifles minority opinion. A team that expresses high social judgment disengages and simply goes with the flow of whoever offers up a safe idea.

Team Performance

High levels of trust, vulnerability, and playfulness dictate how effective a team performs. Achieving all elements to reach full team utilization. If the team does not have these elements, don’t bother wasting the organization or the individuals’ time.  A facilitator can access how open and trusting a team is based on how many ideas they come up with. Intuitively, a handful of ideas means a troubled team. Leadership’s top priority must be placed on creating an environment that enables trust.

The leader’s delicate balance of maintaining constant inclusion while also focusing on the end product. The team dynamic gets ignored easily as the leader believes that their role is to participate in the process. Their role, however, is to guide and enable the process instead of participating in it. This consists of nurturing ideas and creating a positive environment instead of being the problem solver.

Cost of Rudeness

Recent research has quantified the cost of workplace rudeness. Noting that when pressed individuals with time limitations let their manners slip. The stressed-out individual then crosses social norms and it comes across the team as bullying. Not only does this erode trust but it hurts the overall performance of the team experience up to a 12% negative performance impact. With the erosion of team trust, their focus shifts from collaborative output to processing unpleasant interactions.

Leaders can build trust by applying several approaches. The main soft-skill approach is creating positive relationships. The team should seek out their managers to engage with them instead of hiding from them. Recent research has also found that the team is more likely to trust the manager if they have the technical know-how and experience to make good decisions. Overall, employees trust managers that are consistent as they know what to expect which eliminates the fear of the unknown.

Practical Application

  • Emphasize inclusion. Everyone person on the team has to feel that they belong there. Not only do they need to believe that their work provides value but that the team accepts them.
  • As the leader, you must model inclusive and trusting behaviors. This sets the baseline of the team’s culture and norms that allow the team to trust one another. As a Manager, if you have favorites on the team, this trust will never be earned.
  • Address issues immediately. Addressing cutting remarks, gossip, or passive-aggressive behavior publicly and immediately to reinforce the culture that you intend to build. Small snide comments remove large chunks of trust.

Lieutenants of Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee commanded the Army of Northern Virginia for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Being undermanned and overmatched in most battles, he was able to rely on the skill of his General staff to find paths to victories. Known as Lee’s Lieutenants, none was more revered than Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. A relatively unknown school teacher at the beginning of the war, he found himself as Lee’s key General. Jackson’s style of leading from the front drove an aggressive style of combat leading to many early Confederate battle victories. However, that aggressive style led to his pickets accidentally shooting him at Chancellorsville which resulted in his eventual death due to pneumonia.

Lee’s General staff missed the guiding force of Jackson which later fractured into separate distrusting camps. For instance, James Longstreet was known as a defensive general while Richard Ewell was considered overly analytical in his decision-making process. This combination of divergent thought could have been an asset, yet Lee’s leadership turned it into a liability instead of an asset.


The Generals bickered constantly on strategies. They took passive-aggressive stances of agreeing in-person to strategies only to choose to not follow through later. They lost respect for one another until the trust was broken. Instead of rectifying the issues, Lee chose to walk away from quarrels and to let them work themselves out on their own.

With problems left unresolved, the South invaded the North. This invasion came to a head at Gettysburg. The three-day battle matched 72,000 Confederate troops against more than 100,000 Union troops becoming one of the bloodiest battles that the United States had ever encountered. Lee and his Lieutenants never came to an overarching strategy leading to a stalemate throughout the early part of the battle. Later that confusion came to desperation as Lee called for Pickett’s charge which sent 12,500 troops into direct fire lines with the Union defenses. This resulted in the decimation of the Southern Division and the turning point of the Civil War in favor of the Union.


Freeman, D. S. (1997). Lee. Scribner: New York.

Shaara, M. (1987). The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War. Ballantine Books: New York.

Wallace, J. B. (2019). The Costs of Workplace Rudeness. The Wall Street Journal.

Zenger, J. a. (2019). The Three Elements of Trust. Harvard Business Review.

Watson, M. (2018). Another Common Strategies and Practices Among Facilitators of Innovative Thinking in Organizations. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest.

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