Building Trust in Teams: Lessons from Boys in the Boat

There was a lot of fuss around Boys in the Boat last year, a book chronicling the quest of nine working class boys from the University of Washington to capture rowing gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. PBS made a documentary and now a Hollywood version directed by Peter Berg is in development. When I finally read it this summer, I immediately understood its appeal. The book not only tells a David and Goliath tale of have-nots overcoming overwhelming odds to beat the Nazi sports machine, it also traces an individual’s journey of courage and building trust in his teammates to fight loneliness and despair.

The Boys of ’36 – Building Trust in Desperate Times

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The boys who made up the crew of 1936 hailed from families devastated by the Great Depression. They worked summer jobs in logging and mining, often taking high-risk assignments for higher pay to ensure they had enough for tuition the following fall. Unlike their East Coast competition, they worked part time while attending classes and rowing, perpetually hungry from the high caloric demands training put on their bodies. The story revolves around a young man named Joe Rantz, who was deserted by his family at age 12 and left to make his way in the world.

By the time Joe arrives at the University of Washington, he is solitary, distrustful, independent, self-sufficient, and tough. Life has taught him not to depend on anyone. Despite a hugely successful freshman year, as he moves through the ranks of the varsity, Joe doesn’t reach his athletic potential, always holding back. As he befriends legendary boat builder George Pocock, he listens to the older man’s wisdom on building trust in his teammates.

“Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power at work within you that is far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined. Sometimes you will feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars.”

With the encouragement of young men like Shorty Hunt, who sat right behind Rantz in the boat and constantly reminded him “I got your back Joe,” Rantz finally begins to see rowing “as a symphony, and himself as just one player in the orchestra…it wasn’t just the rowing but his crewmates that he had to give himself up to, even if it meant getting his feelings hurt.”

Applying Joe’s Journey to Corporate Cultureteam

The more I read about Joe and about the unique bond between athletes that rowing requires to make fast boats, the more I thought about our company culture at Zeal and other companies where I’ve worked. Much has been written about how leaders build trust in their teams; but what about teammates trusting one another?

After listening to Pocock, Joe Rantz spends a stormy afternoon sitting on a boat dock reflecting. “For Joe, who had spent the last six years doggedly making his own way in the world, who had forged his identity on stoic self reliance, nothing was more frightening than allowing himself to depend on others. People let you down. People leave you behind. Depending on people, trusting them–it’s what gets you hurt. But trust seemed to be at the heart of what Pocock said. There was a kind of absolute truth in that, something he needed to come to terms with.”

Team members come to work every day from a diversity of backgrounds, challenges, victories and failures. Everyone has a story, an insecurity, a competency, and an eagerness to fit in. How then, do we create a culture of building trust between colleagues, of fostering a safe space where strengths and vulnerabilities can be recognized while believing that we will all share the load every time we put our oar in the water?

As I thought about Joe, Shorty and the others on the 1936 crew, another example of highly interdependent teams came to mind. Mountain climbers rely on one another in the most challenging and stressful environments on earth. Altitude, weather, freezing temperatures, avalanches and countless other factors demand a life-and-death dependency on the climber on the other end of the rope. The 1996 Everest disaster that left eight climbers dead when a rogue storm swept across the peak demonstrates how suddenly high altitude conditions can change and bad decisions and delays can become deadly.

Much has been written about what happened on Everest in early May, 1996. Three of the eight who died were guides; some of the most experienced names in mountaineering. Dangerous and heroic rescue operations were attempted and successfully executed by individuals from other climbing teams. When competing teams fell apart and leadership structure disappeared on the mountain, climbers struggling under extreme conditions helped each other. It’s worth remembering that in times of crisis, the people working and sitting near us may be the ones we depend on for support.

Lessons from Rowing and Climbing on Building Trust at Work

Culling my learning from Boys in the Boat and reading on several climbing triumphs and disasters, there seem to be some universal take-aways applicable to building trust into organizational culture.

  • Understand and buy into a plan – Teammates have a shared purpose if everyone feels s/he has a specific and valued role in achieving plan fruition. Communicate relentlessly to make sure everyone understands their responsibility.
  • Use the team to make decisions – Leverage the strengths of teammates’ individual skills to solve problems and accept that there may be better solutions hidden in the team.
  • Stick together – Support your teammates, even the ones you don’t like. Ultimately, they are the ones pulling for you or anchoring the other end of the rope. Don’t let anyone wander off on their own.
  • Be honest about success and failure – Unabashedly celebrate each other’s successes but recognize your own failures. Forgive mistakes; the team will learn from them in the long run.
  • Stay focused – Fatigue and frustration can mean individuals miss certain dangers. Work together to keep everyone on task.
  • Listen to your teammates – Not only will you learn from them, it will foster closer relationships that in turn make the team stronger.

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