TUMBLEWEED: Building Trust through Effective Communication

Updated: August 20, 2009

Lack of communication can take the most carefully laid plans and destroy them with the corrosion of doubt. It can transform the most confident person into a "second-guesser" and that's bad for everyone on your team.

I remember flying a combat mission in Iraq when I lost radio contact with my wingmen. I was flying in the "dark." Having no radio contact at 20,000 feet and separated from my wingmen by 10 miles on a night combat mission in hostile territory was not an ideal situation. What if I lost my engine or was engaged by ground fire? How could I call for help? Was something wrong with my radios?

I was quickly reduced to a ‘second guesser' filled with doubt and fear, and fear kills the warrior spirit! I felt clueless. This is the state that fighter pilots call "Tumbleweed" - having limited to no situational awareness (SA) and barely hanging on.

Suddenly my back-up radio blared with the terse (yet comforting) sound of my flight lead, "2, come up frequency 239.9." I realized then that I had accidentally typed in the wrong frequency of 233.9! I was relieved! My flight lead continued, "Vipers, check!" We responded in a crisp, monotone cadence, "2, 3, 4." With a brief position update, Viper flight was now marching to the same beat. We had SA. We were ready for battle.

Looking back, it was a single act that changed everything. One second, I was in the dark, unknowing, afraid and full of doubt - a "second guesser" with no SA. Then, with the crackle of the radio and the reassuring sound of my flight lead, I was back in the game and had re-gained situational awareness - just like that!

Communication is not important, it's critical. This holds true in every walk of life whether in business or combat. Communication keeps wingmen focused on their responsibilities and builds situational awareness in rapidly changing environments. It makes or breaks a mission. It's all based on trust.

Here's the kicker. Great communication doesn't just happen. You build a framework that assures it. You train for it, and then you hold everyone accountable to it!

On every mission, fighter pilots and top businesspersons should:

  1. Brief the mission to establish and communicate objectives, delegate responsibilities, analyze threats, and review contingency plans.
  2. Establish a communication plan (a "Comm Plan") by confirming when and where to change frequencies.
  3. Brief a back-up plan in case communication fails (known as "radio-out" procedures).
  4. Ensure positive two-way communication is established between wingmen during critical elements of a mission.
  5. Debrief every mission to review lessons learned and reinforce training.

- Do you have a "Comm Plan" with your wingmen?
- Are you taking the time to brief your sales, IT, or marketing missions?
- Do you ensure all team members are on the same wave length and understand their roles, responsibilities, and objectives?
- Are you aware of those wingmen that may be on the wrong frequency with no SA (Tumbleweed) and do you have a plan to get them back on frequency?

Leaving any of your wingmen in the dark guarantees one thing - that you'll have "second guessers" on the team making decisions on their own that might not be in the best interests of the mission and the other wingmen involved. Communication is the conduit of teamwork and is the basis for all trust. Without it, a team is useless.

Checking in with your wingmen and making sure they're on the right frequency, listening to their questions, and understanding their challenges are fundamental components of teamwork, leadership and trust. When people's problems are acknowledged and they know who to go to for help (and that it's okay to ask for help!) they are more likely to admit mistakes to their wingmen (supervisors and/or peers) and reveal situations that can adversely effect the accomplishment of a mission.

Most importantly, they will trust that someone on their team will heed the wingman's call for action which is "I need help!"


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