When compared to other adventure sports like rock climbing or hang gliding, sailing is considered relatively safe. Yet sailing isn’t foolproof, nor are the dangers non-existent. On a warm and cloudless day, a group of coworkers went off together on what they thought was going to be a relaxed, recreational sailing excursion. But when a sudden “freakish” gale swamped their vessel and brought them uncomfortably close to death, the whole experience radically changed their lives in a way that none of them could have predicted. They were suddenly and unexpectedly forced to draw upon the trust and credibility they’d gradually built up from working together as colleagues in order to head off catastrophe.
What builds trust and credibility? The answers may surprise you. A classic study done in the 1960s found that otherwise competent people are viewed as more appealing (and more human) when they make a simple blunder, such as spilling their coffee. Some of the evidence is even older. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin explains how he defrosted the chilly disposition of a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly by asking to borrow a rare book from him. Instead of making Franklin feel further indebted to someone who already didn’t seem to like him, it planted the seeds of friendship between the two men that lasted throughout both of their lives. Psychologists were able to prove that Franklin’s observation wasn’t simply an isolated anecdote by replicating the situation under more stringent conditions. In a study conducted by behavioral researchers Jon Jecker and David Landy, a lecturer who asked students to lend him money was perceived as more likeable by the students he asked for a loan than he was by the students he didn’t trouble.
The tie that binds these disparate episodes is vulnerability. As strange as it sounds, in social situations, weakness can sometimes be a strength. Demonstrating your human frailties or asking for help stimulates a deep evolutionary impulse in others to cooperate. Although we’re bombarded by stories of loose cannons and lone wolves, these examples are the exception rather than the rule. The truth is that humans are fundamentally social creatures. The engine behind this social impulse is a powerful neuropeptide called oxytocin. Sometimes known as the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin makes it feel good to stick together. Released in the brain, it promotes bonding between a mother and child, between sexual partners, and between members of a group who might otherwise view each other with suspicion, contempt, or outright hostility.
That’s why when confronted by a threat, rather than choosing to go it alone, most people instinctively seek out social support from other members of their group. The danger triggers the release of oxytocin for good reason: There is strength – and survival – in numbers. Oxytocin tears down the walls of estrangement and suspicion and builds up bonding and trust in its place.
How can you apply these survival tactics to strengthen the bonds of teams and encourage trust among coworkers? One thing is clear about trust. It can’t be imposed or decreed. It can only be cultivated and encouraged. Obviously it would be more than a little sadistic to knowingly send employees off on a dangerous journey (soldiers, police officers, and fire fighters do this, but that’s part of the job description). Even deliberately spilling coffee can prove risky in certain situations.
So what you can do that is both ethical and safe is to place a group of employees in a difficult situation where cooperation is not just desirable, but essential. Find a task or project that is ambitious but still achievable. The more surprising and unexpected the assignment the better. On the individual level, when we are compelled to operate just outside our comfort zone (we call this being “slightly over-challenged”) a trio of neurochemicals in our brain combine to elevate our performance. The same thing can happen in a team situation but with an added bonus: Faced with a challenge that is more than they can handle on their own, team members come to the sudden, instinctive realization that in order to succeed they must rely on each other. In the process, each member must confront his or her own vulnerabilities and accept the weaknesses of others.
Take it from the people on that sailboat who collaborated to overcome a potentially deadly disaster. It is one thing to appreciate the theoretical value of trust – most of us do this already – but quite another to actually experience it. The trust that allowed the coworkers to come to each other’s aid and get everyone safely back to shore not only saved their lives, but also established a bond that didn’t end at the water’s edge. It inspired them to become one of the most tight-knit and productive teams in their company’s history.
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