One of the things that I have not considered in previous thought on the mechanism by which small ad-hoc teams break drown under pressure, e.g., fail to perform, is the notion of trust.

So to work through this notion of trust and the impact it has on ad-hoc teams when a crisis comes (and by crisis I mean a mayday type situation).  To make this work I am going to ask you to imagine a small fire department-much like your own- one where there are “weak players” and “strong players.” People who we all accept as “firemen” and people who we think are afraid, scared to go in, too worried about safety to get the job done, or simply inept. Imagine both types because they are both critical components of trust.

In my imagined trust is a core component of what makes the teamwork. You have to trust the guy leading you into the burning building. Sometimes that trust is built on what I call “strong connections” which is to say, connections that are forged under real life circumstances. You trust the other guy because you have faced danger with him and emerged ok. But that notion does not work with ad hoc teams, right?

You put a new rookie into a fire station and he trusts the Captain, but that cannot be a strong connection because he just met the Captain that morning. He trusts the Captain but with a “weak connection” a connection based on a formalized position in the hierarchy. He really does not trust the Captain. His faith really is in the organization’s ability to put the right people in the right position. This weak connection and those like it is what I think is likely the primary causality in organizational collapse.

We don’t trust each other to do the right things and somebody has to do the right thing so we end up doing multiple versions of the “right thing” which collectively are dangerous and wrong.

But let’s think about this a little bit more. Imagine a recent experience of collapse at a fire. We had “leaders” in place. But we still had this crisis moment. There is this Captain who everyone says “sucks” We know we need to trust him but we can’t. The people we look up don’t. Our bosses criticize, often informally with rolled eyes and smirks. But we can’t do this thing, fight this fire, rescue this person, not with him because he does not fit into the dominant cowboy/hero paradigm. (Not that I think that people ever understand that they are operating in this paradigm-once you understand the paradigm it necessarily follows that you abandon it). It turns out though that this time he is right and if only they had heeded his advice there would have been no problem.

But there was a problem. People were lost, people almost died, it was close. We got away with one…this time.

So we are this ad-hoc team plopped down into the middle of a crisis, a house on fire, we may know a lot about fires and the chemical and physical processes that govern fire behavior but what we don’t know is how this one particular fire works in this particular time and space. We are in the middle of uncertainty.  We have a weak connection with the leadership. We have this official authority who must be followed because that’s the structure of the organization/the framework/the exoskeleton/

Then the crisis comes…

We are at a fire and we are oscillating regularly around the base level of expectation and actual performance. Then someone falls through the floor, a MAYDAY is called and we have to adapt to a crisis within a crisis, the oscillations become chaotic. The organization collapses.

It collapses because the new guy had a weak connection with his/her leader and the other players had weak connections too; there never was an essential trust. There were no strong connections.

The organization collapses because it was based on this faulty notion of leadership, right? There of basic expectation and of ethical and functional parameters that was breached. We expect that the people are going to follow the rules and the leaders. But that doesn’t happen at this fire, and the organization collapses. It does this often.


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