First Posted April 28, 2006.
Trust and the Social Power of Institutions
Trust within an organization, a community or a unit of any institution is primarily established by the leader. When leaders fail their people, or worse, betray them, trust is eroded or destroyed. This is part of what Jonathan Shay suggests in his book Achilles in Vietnam. He compares the bureaucratic upper or rear echelon military leadership in Vietnam to Homer's gods and goddesses. He writes,
Consider these seemingly "self-evident" statements about the role of gods in human life:
Gods embody the most sublime human aspirations.
Gods are the bulwark of morality and public order.
Gods provide inner peace.
God's ennoble and civilize mankind.
Because the Iliad's gods fit none of these generalizations, many modern Western readers find it very hard to take them seriously. Homer's Olympians have powers as impressive as those of the superheroes of television cartoons, but they are just as easy to shrug off. Our own expectations of what may be said about God (now capitalized and singular) are molded by the comprehensive victory of Judeo-Christian teachings. As a result, Olympians' heartless cruelty, their faithlessness, negligence, and frivolous aims simply don't register with many modern Western readers.
Can we reclaim emotional significance for the Iliad's gods?
I invite the reader to react emotionally to all the gods together as a metaphor for terrifying social power. I propose Homer's gods as symbols of institutions that acquire godlike power, such as armies and the social institution of war itself.
As seen from the combat soldier's perspective, the distant gods are the rear-echelon higher officers and civilian political authorities who control an army and (along with the enemy) are the soldier's defacto masters and captors. They have truly godlike power over soldiers in combat. Armies, like families, are institutions that create a world. Both successfully engender the new member's respect, loyalty, love, affirmation, gratitude, and obedience. I speak of armies and families as creating social power, because the hold that each of these institutions has over its members comes to greatly exceed its moment-to-moment capacity to reward or punish and usually persists long after significant practical affilation has ended.
Shay leads us to understand that the soldier on the field of battle is in a sort of prison or a state of perpetual capture. It begins in basic training and continues on. This is what Shay means when he says that the military service functions as a moral world. It is a self-contained moral world.
"Any army, ancient or modern, is a social construction defined by shared expectations and values. Some of these are embodied in formal regulations, defined authority, written orders, ranks, incentives, punishments, and formal task and occupational definitions. Others circulate as traditions, archetypal stories of things to be emulated or shunned, and accepted truth about what is praiseworthy and what is culpable. All together, these form a moral world that most of the participants most of the time regard as legitimate, "natural," and personally binding. The moral power of an army is so great that it can motivate men to get up out of a trench and step into enemy machine-gun fire."
What Shay is showing us in this description is what he develops later in his book that this moral world is a world of social power. Moral order is not some abstract set of philosophic definitions of right and wrong. No, moral order is a social order that guides and constrains what we do and how we are to act. This is particularly important when you have several hundred thousand soldiers engaged on the field of battle. Without that order, you have chaos.
There two things to say to this.
Trust in that moral order and the leaders of that moral order is essential for the success and security of the social order. That social order is where soldiers act to achieve the goals of the unit on the field of battle. It is where the combined military forces work to achieve victory over the enemy. It is where all segments of a business works to bring a product to the consumer that satisfies expectations and produces sustainable success.
What is true of the military in war, is true of every business. It is a moral order of all those attributes described above by Shay, and they are worked out through a social order of relationships. At the center of those relationships are the leaders who bring focus and trust to the teams of individuals who through that social order bring success to the institution.
Every organization is a moral and social order in this regard. And when leaders betray those they lead, by betraying their own self-interest, then the moral and social order becomes fragile and begins a process of decline. It declines into warring tribes within the larger community of the institution. It declines into those who want to change it because they don’t like what they see and experience - the revolutionaries, and those who want to cling to the past because it is the only security they perceive - the traditionalists.
Trust in the moral and social order of an organization is established by the actions and decision of leaders. This leads to my second observation.
Trust is based on personal integrity and character that is realized in social cohesion. It becomes a shared social experience because it is how the actions and decisions of people are experienced within the social environment of the business.
In leadership circles we talk a lot about collaboration. But collaboration is just an activity that is effective because trust has created social cohesion. Collaboration is a tool used to foster communication and collaboration within a social group of collaborators - the team.
In Shay’s book, Odysseus in American: Combat Trauma and The Trials of Homecoming, he writes about the importance of unit cohesion in war.
Social cohesion – from having trained together and traveled to the war zone together – is what keeps people physically alive and mentally sane when faced with a human enemy who really is trying to kill them. The malignity of the armed human enemy is not a psychological figment.
If you go see the 9/11 film, United 93 (and you should), you will see trust and social cohesion immediately form when the passengers realize that they are not hostages for barter, but are victims of a suicide mission. They organize, create a strategy for action, support one another in order to find the courage to act, and then they quickly move forward to resolve the situation. While their intention to save the plane and the remaining passengers wasn’t successful, they were successful in thwarting a much greater real and symbolic lost if the plane had struck the U.S. capital.
Trust provides security. Unit cohesion “creates courage by reducing fear.”(Shay)
Translate this truth into a business, and are there any obstacles that stand in the way of its success? I doubt it. All the basic functions of a business are enhanced when each employee not only trusts the leadership and the social system within which they work, but also have the courage to do that which is in the best interests of the organization.
Shay’s treatment of the social power of the military’s moral order shows just how important the integrity and character of the leader is to its functioning. The same is true of every place individuals are brought together around a shared task or goal.