Trust is essential to effective leadership.  And trust is a two-way street.  On the one hand, followers must trust their leaders.  Leaders who lose the trust of their subordinates are rendered ineffective.  On the other hand, leaders must trust their followers. The leader who does not do so falls into a vicious cycle of micro-management that results in a poor organizational climate.  Organizations that cultivate a sense of mutual trust between leaders and subordinates are more effective, report higher morale, and experience lower turnover rates than organizations characterized by mistrust.

Michael D. Matthews
Source: Michael D. Matthews

The critical role of trust to organizational effectiveness is most clearly seen in high-stakes, high-stress occupations including the military, law enforcement, firefighting, and high-risk/high-gain businesses. Soldiers who distrust their officers may balk at executing dangerous missions.  Police officers who do not trust their leadership may be reluctant to take the risks necessary to enforce laws and preserve the peace. In the corporate world, distrustful employees may not go the “extra mile” to further the goals of the organization.  Supervisors who do not trust their workers spend too much of their valuable time “checking up” on employees. When I was a law enforcement officer, I recall a police lieutenant who spent his hours trying to catch patrol officers violating regulations such as always wearing their hat when outside of the police vehicle. From the subordinate’s perspective, the presence of the lieutenant quickly became what Skinnerian psychologists would call an “aversive cue.”  As you might guess, the street officers in this department were cynical and suspicious of their leadership.

There is a substantial body of literature on the topic of trust.  In many of these studies, trust is studied in contrived laboratory settings looking at undergraduate students engaged in often artificial tasks.  The advantages of laboratory experimentation — experimental control and the ability to make causal inferences — are both well-known and appreciated.  But these studies suffer from poor external validity.  That is, they may be replicable and allow causal inferences in the context of the laboratory tasks, but may have little relevance to the way trust plays out in real world work settings, particularly in what Thomas Kolditz calls “in extremis” situations.[1]

An especially intriguing field study of trust was conducted by military psychologist Patrick J. Sweeney.  Sweeney, a U.S. Army colonel, was in graduate school pursuing his doctorate in social psychology at the time the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. Although Sweeney was slated for assignment to West Point to teach psychology and leadership upon completion of his doctoral studies, General David Petraeus asked him to suspend his graduate studies and assist in the initial military operations to take Baghdad in March of 2003. In conjunction with this request, Sweeney quickly designed a study that allowed him to conduct research on trust among real soldiers engaged in real combat.  I suspect that the University of North Carolina, where Sweeney obtained his doctorate in social psychology, had never seen a dissertation of this sort!

Sweeney devised a set of surveys and administered them to officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted soldiers during the fight for Baghdad.  It is an understatement to say that this methodology had very high external validity!  Following his stint in the war, Sweeney returned to his graduate studies, spent several months analyzing the data he had collected in Iraq, and successfully completed and defended his dissertation.

The results of Sweeney’s research were enlightening.  He found three factors central to soldiers trusting their leaders.  Sweeney calls these factors the “3 C’s” of trust:  Competence, character, and caring.  First and foremost, to be trusted, leaders must be viewed by their soldiers as competent.  They had to know their jobs, and communicate clearly to their subordinates that they possessed the knowledge and skills needed to get the job done. Incompetence, in this setting, could result in unnecessary deaths or injury to soldiers.

The second “C,” character, was also necessary for bonds of trust to form.  The Army espouses seven basic values that it believes are the essential ingredients to good character.  These are loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.  Stemming from hundreds of years of military experience and culture, these values map directly to character strengths identified by positive psychologists.[2]  Sweeney found that competence is necessary but is not sufficient alone to engender trust. High character was also critical.  A skilled and competent leader who was disloyal, shirked duty, was disrespectful, and so forth was simply not trusted by his soldiers.  And the reverse was also true.  A leader of high character but who was seen as incompetent was also not trusted.

The last “C” of trust that Sweeney identified was a sense of genuine caring for the welfare of soldiers. Caring does not mean catering to the whims of individuals, but rather a clear and heartfelt commitment to doing the right thing for the soldiers, under very trying circumstances.  A caring leader shows empathy, shares risk with his or her soldiers, and is present to stand with his soldiers in the face of daunting challenges.  In the direst case, the caring leader would ensure that a soldier killed in action would be treated with utmost respect, his remains retrieved and sent home, and his family supported and consoled.

It is important to emphasize that Sweeney found that each of the 3 C’s is necessary for trust, but none alone were sufficient.  Although not assessed directly in this study, Sweeney observed that soldiers assigned to units that were led by officers and senior non-commissioned officers who exemplified competence, character, and trust ultimately were more effective.  Morale was higher, and soldiers were more willing “give their all” to complete assigned missions.

Most of us, thankfully, will never lead or be led in combat.  But most of us will work in jobs that are important, stressful, and demanding. It may be useful to reflect, from your own experience, on the validity of Sweeney’s 3 C’s in your own work experience. Did your own leaders or managers possess and exemplify competence, character, and caring?  What was the effect on your own performance or morale if one or more of the C’s were absent in a particular situation?  Were you satisfied to work for a leader who was competent, but who lacked character and/or did not express genuine concern for your well-being?  And, perhaps most importantly, what can you do to build your own “3 C’s?”

Replicating Sweeney’s study in other occupational contexts would represent an important contribution to the trust literature. Trust certainly seems to be a key component to the organizational climate, a phenomenon well researched by industrial/organizational psychologists.  Through studying trust using a variety of research methodologies and across an array of occupations, psychologists can build a better understanding of trust, its personal and organizational consequences, and how to shape and build it, not just for the military, but for all work organizations.

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

[1] Kolditz, Thomas A., In Extremis Leadership: Leading as if Your Life Depended on It (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007).

[2] Peterson, Christopher, and Martin E. P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (New York: Oxford, 2004).

You are reading

Head Strong

Developing Leaders at West Point

An exercise in self-reflection.

Project Arete

Understanding character and leadership at West Point

So You Want to Be the President?

What politicians can learn from military leaders.