Building Trust before a Crisis

One of the memorable stories of 9/11 is what unfolded in response to the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 at the Pentagon. On that Tuesday morning, a plane carrying 10,000 gallons of fuel going over 300 miles an hour crashed into the building, ultimately killing close to 200 people. Consider the challenge emergency responders had: the nation had been attacked, a federal military building was on fire, and numerous local, state, regional and federal agencies and fire, police and medical teams were needed to respond. Yet, in that crisis “By all accounts the level of true collaboration, the degree of information and resource sharing, and the lack of turf and ego problems among the principals at the Pentagon were extraordinary” writes Russell Linden in his book Leading across Boundaries.

“It’s all about trust” is how Tom Martin, the incident commander for the state police at the Pentagon, described what enabled firefightersPhoto by: arribathe emergency response to work so well. That trust among the emergency responders had been developed based on many training sessions together. The agency supervisors knew each other and had established relationships, serving on task forces and committees, as well as doing ‘table top’ exercises so they knew how others would respond.

Contrast that to the response to Katrina, as Linden describes “Multiple agencies with overlapping jurisdictions quarreled and pointed fingers as people died…Relationships that should have been well established prior to the storm were weak or nonexistent.”

Trust, which grows out of time invested in working together and building relationships, is key, whether it is responding to a crisis or weathering the range of political, financial, or other “storms” that can arise in the course of our work. Trust and the strength of relationships is one of the foundational requirements for effective work across organizational boundaries.

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