In my first year after separating from the Air Force Special Warfare community and entering the private sector, I’ve encountered many misperceptions about what happens in the military’s elite small teams.
Some military misperceptions are kind of funny – over a lunch meeting, a business partner asked me what I flew while I was in the Air Force. He was stunned to learn that over 95% of Air Force members are, in fact, not pilots. One interviewer reviewed my resume and asked me what I did to get “fired” so many times, not understanding that being moved from one base to another was by design and not a result of poor performance. These kinds of misperceptions are not something that I’m frustrated by in the slightest – the military is a unique culture, and it would be unfair to expect that anyone who hadn’t lived it would fully understand it.
However, one of those misperceptions continues to confuse me – not just where it stems from, but how it could be believed even remotely accurate. The first time I heard it, I was so caught off guard that I could not formulate a coherent response.
After a frustrating internal meeting, a coworker struck up a conversation with me as we walked back to our offices. I must have appeared exhausted by the discussion we’d just been a part of because he looked at me and said, “It must be very different than where you came from.” Not sure what in particular he was alluding to, I asked him what he meant.
“You know, tension like that. I’m sure you were on some awesome teams, and you all got along. Like brothers, that’s the big thing in the military, right?”
I have been asked questions along those lines dozens of times in the past year by people who, for whatever reason, believe that there isn’t friction on high-performing teams. I never know what to say because the concept behind the question is just so baffling.
Yes, the TACP community I came up in was composed of the most highly talented, competent, and professional people I have ever worked with. The joint teams we trained with and fought alongside were second to none. That doesn’t mean we all got along all the time, or that we never clashed, or that we even liked each other.
It needs to be abundantly clear that “liking” a teammate is not a qualifier. In the TACP community and any team in any industry, there is not a single team in which everybody likes everybody else all the time. That is not what makes those teams effective. Teams are effective because of two simple shared beliefs:
1) They firmly believe that what is best for the team is more important than the best for the individual, even when they are themselves.
2) They have absolutely no doubt that everyone else on the team shares that belief.
That’s trust – the firmly held belief that every team member will pursue an end state that is desirable for and beneficial to the team.
The single most crucial aspect of effective small team dynamics is trust. It might be the only factor worth considering. When you have trust, you have alignment. When you trust each other, you have unspoken permission to critique each other thoroughly and openly for the team’s benefit.
A team that trusts each other will argue internally without hesitation and without holding back because they know that the outcome of that friction will improve the team and everyone on it. They will then go and execute in alignment, whether the plan was theirs or not.
There is certainly nothing wrong with team members liking each other. Getting together outside of the office to grab a drink, chatting over lunch, or even bringing families together are perfectly normal and beneficial teambuilding behaviors. Still, using likeability as a qualifier in selecting your team is a significant misstep. It has no bearing on how effective, professional, or even cohesive a small team is. Liking teammates do not respect them, communicate well with them, or work towards a common goal.
Trust is what sets effective teams apart. Establish it, build on it, and foster it.
This article is also available on Medium.
After graduating from the Air Force Academy, Dan served for over five years as an officer in the elite Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) community. He served both as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) and as a Task Force Advisor on a 2018 deployment in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. His expertise in selecting, developing, and leading effective small teams stems from his experiences as an Air Force Special Warfare Officer, both in training and in combat.
Dan partnered with the Talent War Group (formerly EF Overwatch) in 2019 and now works as the Director of Sales for Kahn Mechanical Contractors in Dallas, Texas. Dan holds a Master of Arts degree in Strategic Leadership from Saint Bonaventure University. He is passionate about mental health advocacy for the veteran community.