“WorkLife with Adam Grant” EPISODE 5: How Astronauts Build Trust (Podcast Review)

(Cover Photo by Felix Russell-Saw on Unsplash)

You can listen to the podcast on Itunes OR on the TED website.

Check out our reviews of Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3, and Episode 4 if you missed them!

Theme: Trust, and why the strongest bonds are forged in the most challenging situations.

Key Takeaways

How do we traditionally try to build trust?

We do things that help people like each other, like organizing company parties and picnics, softball games, team dinners, etc.

According to certain psychological studies, these aren’t very useful in building trust.

Research suggests that when people go to professional mixers, they don’t really mix. They just end up hanging out with their existing friends. At company parties, people mostly just get closer to the colleagues who are similar to them.

In the context of the workplace, this may not be the best thing. According to a study (qtd.in Grant, 2018) done at a tech company, at work we tend to rely more on the people we like, regardless of their competence.

In other words, we tend to judge people based on how much we like them, and not on whether or not they’re the right fit for the task. In a situation where meaningful work needs to be accomplished, this can be problematic; especially in work situations that are particularly weighty (e.g. people’s lives are at risk).

Professional mixers and events similar to them are examples of events that promote ‘shallow fun’. Shallow fun is not bad, but its effects wear off quickly, and the relationships built through it are mostly superficial.

How should we build trust?

According to Adam, the goal is to have events that promote ‘deep fun’; the kind that leads to lasting relationships and meaningful connections.

Deep fun involves vulnerability [More on that later].

Deep fun happens when solving hard problems with high stakes, for example: “Like a team of lawyers, trying to figure out how to present the best closing argument in a case. Or a team of mechanics trying to diagnose an engine failure.”

‘Deep fun’ interactions lead to trust. They allow us to get to know another person on a deeper level: deeper than the short, infrequent and superficial interactions we usually have.

According to Jeff Ashby, chief of mission assurance at Blue Origin, the best way to get to know someone is to “immerse yourself with that person for a period of days in a stressful environment”.

NASA has been implementing this technique with their astronauts for some time now.

John Kanengieter, wilderness training and leadership expert, takes people on expeditions through rugged landscapes to learn about group dynamics. In an expedition, the crew decides on a goal for each day, like, reaching a summit before sundown. Then they come up with a strategy and assign roles.

Why do this?

“Anytime you’re working in a group on a difficult problem you’re going to have moments of stress. Knowing how people will react is key to building trust. Because you can’t trust someone whose behavior you can’t predict.”

Adam explains this further:

“When we first meet people, we think of their behavior as driven by their personality. That makes us think of people in terms of one dimension only: “She’s always angry” or “He’s always stressed”. But when we go through challenges together, we start to become more aware of how different traits come out in different situations. Stressful situations help us identify the kinds of moments where he’s anxious and where she’s frustrated. We all have our own emotional triggers. […] There’s evidence that people who know each other’s emotional triggers have more trust and less conflict. They’re able to avoid pushing each other’s buttons.” (Grant, 2018)

So, knowing each other’s emotional triggers is important, but what else?

Vulnerability

When it comes to building trust, vulnerability is essential.

Often people think that you need to build trust in order to be vulnerable with another person. But the exact opposite is true: being vulnerable builds trust. Being vulnerable together builds closeness and creates it.

But, in reality, vulnerability is rare: very few of us tend to open up to one another, and it’s usually only a very small amount of people. Why is vulnerability so hard?

Because it’s high risk.

When we become vulnerable, we expose ourselves completely to another; and this is scary. Because we are naturally status-oriented creatures, anything that threatens our status poses a danger to us, and we tend to avoid it as a result, explains Coyle.

In other words, we’re afraid that a display of vulnerability might change the way people see us, which will affect our status.

Similarity

One of the strongest factors that influence trust is similarity.

We instinctively trust the people who are like us: the people who grew up in the same town as us, love the same movies, or belong to the same place of worship. When we have something in common, we feel like we’re part of a group with shared values and goals.

This explains why it can be harder to trust people who come from different backgrounds.

One way to develop trust using similarity is through story: sharing yours, and listening to others’.

In 2010, John Kanengieter received an urgent call from NASA; the crew of Expedition 26 was preparing to go to the Space Station. They had major cultural differences and only a few days free in their training schedule to come together as a group. The group was composed of a Russian commander (male), an Italian astronaut (male) and an American astronaut (female): each one rather different from one another and coming from different backgrounds.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

So, what did John do?

He took them into crew quarters and asked them one simple question: “Why did you want to become an astronaut? And, how did you get here?”

“When someone discloses something personal, you start to see them more as an individual rather than a group stereotype. Trust develops as you learn about their family, their hobbies, their origin story.” (Grant, 2018)

*Key points to remember: Adam’s conclusion

“Building trust requires risk. Putting yourself out there isn’t always safe. But sometimes, the riskiest move is to never take a risk at all. Because it guarantees that you’ll keep your colleagues at a distance.” (Grant, 2018)

“Even if your crew doesn’t click right away, it’s possible to form a bond. The best way to earn trust is to show trust. And that’s what vulnerability conveys. When you open up about where you came from, who you are and what stresses you out, it sends a clear signal to your group: I trust you.”

Questions to think about

  • Do your staff members trust you?
  • Do they trust each other?

From Adam:

  • “Building trust comes from taking risks together—being vulnerable in situations that are sometimes stressful. What types of activities would help you get there with your team?”
  • “What’s your origin story—the defining moment that drew you to this line of work? Have you ever shared your origin story with your team?”
  • “Consider your least preferred coworker—the person you had the hardest time working with. Was that because of challenges with competence or character? What did you learn about which matters more to you when building trust?”
  • “Trust is hard to build but easy to break. What have you learned about repairing trust?”

Applications for business

  • Create conditions in which vulnerability is welcomed, and even celebrated. Make it OK for people to open up to one another. This may require you to model this behavior first.
  • Organize events that are designed to build deep connections between members of your staff (a weekend hiking or camping trip, perhaps?).

  • Encourage the sharing of emotional triggers at work: yourself and your colleagues alike.
  • Be aware of how your coworkers react in moments of stress; their emotional triggers are more likely to be revealed during these times.
  • Before starting a new project or task, encourage your coworkers to share each other’s emotional triggers with one another.

References

Grant, Adam. “How Astronauts Build Trust”. Audio blog post. WorkLife with Adam Grant. TED, March 28th 2018. Itunes App.

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