Trust: The Bedrock of Elite Team Performance

Written by John Previtera

High performing teams depend on several universally accepted tenants like common purpose, open collaboration and adaptability. Whether you are part of a Navy SEAL Team, a World Cup soccer team, or a Software Scrum Team, these tenants are supported by the core bedrock of Trust.

In my experience on various elite small teams, be it a four-man counter sniper element or a fully integrated Task Unit, one of our more unique teammates, the military working dog, required us to depart from the normal trust building concepts and consider trust from a much more fundamental perspective.


Consider the challenges of working with a new teammate that wasn’t with you from the start of a project; layer in a communication barrier that limits verbal interaction to only one direction, and you can begin to see how establishing trust with this new and highly valued member of the team would present issues.

Just as in the business world, time is the number one enemy to trust.


Things always seem to move at a pace that requires faith long before trust can be established.

In the SEAL Teams, the recipe for building and maintaining trust is built around an intimate knowledge of one another’s skills, personal beliefs, and caring about your teammates; all brought about through the shared misery of arduous training, brutal honesty when evaluating successes and failures, and clear lines of communication.

Our four-legged team mates, the military working dogs, required the same degree of trust in us and us in them, but building that trust wasn’t necessarily the same… or was it?

These highly trained and dedicated military working dogs performed dangerous tasks for us that we otherwise couldn’t do and had to trust in their prior training, dedication, motivation and professionalism. Inversely, they had to trust that we would keep them safe, look out for their best interests and take care of their basic needs.



Whether you are strapping a military working dog to you for freefall insertion on a mission or beginning training with a service dog puppy destined to support a disabled client, trust is paramount at each level of the process to ensure doubt and uncertainty doesn’t inhibit learning and the greater assimilation into future roles and responsibilities.


Trust in the workplace is characterized by faith in one’s colleagues’ intent and competence. It characterizes the relationships between individuals on a team. Those relationships are ultimately more important to a team’s performance than the personal characteristics of any of its members.


Trust is what allows one to collaborate and share information freely with coworkers; it is the capability that creates an environment in which one can focus on getting the job done rather than wasting energy trying to protect oneself and doubting others.


Upon retiring from the SEAL Teams, I began training puppies to eventually become Service Dogs to support Wounded Warriors and children with autism. The degree to which any puppy trusted me and the training concepts, was directly proportional to how productive we were from training session to training session. Once the puppy understands that you are looking out for its best interests and won’t ask it to do anything that might cause it pain or injury, you have taken a most important first step. If you then conduct yourself in a calm, consistent, positive nature, always communicating clearly to the animal what your expectations are, the dog begins to understand that together you are working towards a desired outcome and the puppy ‘tries’ harder to please you.



A challenge lies in scaling Trust and Common Purpose as a business finds success in their industry. As these organizations grow, they naturally lose that tight connection to one another and to the mission. Large organizations add bureaucratic systems to provide stability and predictability, resulting in lower adaptability. To restore adaptability at scale – to create a large, nimble organization in which each function, and the organization as a whole, is capable of changing to be exactly that which the environment demands at any given time—it is necessary to scale Trust and Common Purpose.


Leaders can foster and build trust in their organizations by modeling the behaviors that will demonstrate to their teams that they are working in a safe environment. Transparency, vulnerability, and over communication are all imperative leadership behaviors that will cascade through a team as it grows and will aid in building an organizational culture where it is okay to ask for help or admit to not knowing something.


The best way to learn if you can trust someone is to put yourself in a position where they have an opportunity to either gain your trust or lose it. It is no different when training a puppy – the dog faithfully trusts you based on observed behaviors that maintain a consistent message in support of the greater goal, resulting in mutual trust based on experience rather than belief.

John Previtera

John is the SoCal region Account Manager for CrossLead. He leads client engagements to evaluate organizational capabilities, implement enterprise level processes and tools, and deliver tailored executive education programs. In his 28-year career as a Navy SEAL being part of and leading elite teams in extremely difficult situations, John’s depth of behavioral understanding and leadership experience serves him well on the client site while helping organizations and leaders adapt and excel in the new complex digital world. When not CrossLeading, John breeds and trains Labrador Retrievers to be Service Dogs for Wounded Warriors and children with autism.

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