Technology, Soldiers, and Trust

by Colonel Christopher R. Paparone

    The Army logistician's true love is the soldier he serves. However, our infatuation with technological answers to problems of mission performance may lead to problems of trust among our soldiers.

    I recall my first experience with this problem as I led my support battalion through the intermediate staging base (ISB) in Hungary after 11 grueling months in Bosnia. The corps commander and theater logistics leaders possessed near-perfect information about the redeployment processing status of every company in the division. The network of information gathering and reporting at the ISB was astonishing.

    But, as always, there was a catch. My authority, and that of my platoon leaders and company commanders, was the cost of this near-perfect "situational awareness" by senior logistics leaders. The small unit leadership that was valued in Bosnia had served as a source of trust and confidence. This trust was taken apart piecemeal in the centralized "management" of redeployment by the theater logistics and corps headquarters generals and their staffs. Is this loss of trust the price of technological advances in communications and situational awareness? Is this what the transformed Army will cost?

    I also recall the trust between my battalion and the brigade we supported. The climate was one of mutual respect and admiration. When the brigade and supported battalions asked for support, even if the battlefield situation was ambiguous, they knew we would come through. When my battalion and the brigade support area required force protection, it was provided without debate. This kind of symbiotic "maneuver-logistics" relationship can exist only in a climate of mutual trust.

    What is "trust," anyway? Maybe our problem is that the Army does not have an operational definition of trust. Maybe the word trust does not fit neatly into the "LDRSHIP" acronym that officially expresses our Army values. You cannot put your finger on trust, or measure it like weapon system effectiveness. But you know when it's there and when it's not.

    According to Gareth R. Jones and Jennifer M. George, in a 1998 Academy of Management Review article, values contribute to the experience of trust and create a propensity to trust that surpasses specific situations and relationships. Soldiers who are trustworthy tend to see others as trustworthy. For the Army, trust is based on the enduring values of soldiers.

    Attitudes, emotions, and moods interact with values to determine trust. Attitudes are the thoughts and feelings soldiers have about other soldiers, teams, and units. Attitudes interact with values, because attitudes and values combine when we evaluate others. The climate of a maneuver-logistics support relationship may well rest on these evaluations. Emotions and moods also affect the development of trust, influencing how soldiers interact with each other and sometimes compounding the effects of a loss of trust.

    Jones and George note that there can be three levels of trust. "Conditional" trust is "a state of trust in which both parties are willing to transact with each other, as long as each behaves appropriately." This level is not adequate in soldierly matters of life and death. "Unconditional" trust, on the other hand, "characterizes an experience of trust that starts when individuals abandon the `pretense' of suspending belief, because shared values now structure the situation." Each soldier's trustworthiness is ensured by his confidence in his comrade's values. "When unconditional trust is present, relationships become significant and often involve a sense of mutual identification."

    My subordinates and I experienced the third kind of trust in Hungary: "distrust." In states of conditional or unconditional trust, any violation or discrepant behavioral exchange will reduce trust. According to Jones and George, "Distrust will appear at the point where the ability to suspend disbelief that the other is not trustworthy is lost." The result is that the soldier's values, attitudes, emotions, and moods are tainted, causing a perhaps-irreversible downward spiral in an organization.

    In large, hierarchical meritocracies such as the Army, trust begins at the top. Senior leaders need the unconditional trust of their subordinates. Without that unconditional trust, the organization may experience only conditional trust, or even distrust.

    The challenge for senior leaders is this: how to set conditions so subordinates (and supporting logisticians) trust you and you trust them unconditionally. Do not forget that, in the Army hierarchy, trust is not a 50-50 or quid-pro-quo arrangement. The senior leader has most of the responsibility for ensuring that individual and organizational competencies are sufficient to warrant such unconditional trust. Equally important for senior leaders is earning unconditional trust by demonstrating their competence—a much more challenging proposition.

    We cannot let our love affair with technology (actually, our quest for certainty) ruin a soldier's relationship with the Army and his fellow soldiers. This is the cornerstone objective of Army Transformation.

    Colonel Christopher R. Paparone is participating in the Army War College Professorship Program, working toward a doctor of philosophy degree at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg.