LAUGHLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
Connection is a basic human need, building the trust and security essential for personal buy-in to the organization you serve. In our recent resiliency tactical pause, multiple permanent party personnel raised concerns over their inability to build a connection with students. This sentiment was echoed by a group of instructor pilots, who identified a breakdown in connection as a major obstacle to achieving our vision of becoming the professional pilot training organization to which we aspire. Whether in a syllabus event or your organization, connection is essential for success.
Our Chief of Training in the 47 OG, Capt William Smith, explained how professional intimacy, another name for workplace connectedness, is necessary in training. He described professional intimacy as a combination of rapport and consent, and stated how essential it is to facilitate a meaningful, positive impact on a student’s development. An instructor has to build a rapport free from fear or enmity to enable a student to consent to accept instruction. Note that this does not imply a weak or easy instructor. Rather the student must accept that the instructor is a legitimate source of useful knowledge who cares how the student progresses. My favorite instructors were the ones who held me to the same high standards to which they aspired while still caring about me as a pilot and a person. Without the rapport and consent of professional intimacy, a student is likely to protect themselves and regress into survival mode.
Professional intimacy is a requirement in organizations as well. There are plenty of books that highlight the need for leaders to provide an environment that encourages social connection and mutual acceptance. From Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last, which explains the chemical dynamics in social interactions, to Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead, which emphasizes the requirement for vulnerability in teams, the impetus is on the leader to fulfill their responsibilities in their group-endorsed role for the good of those whom they serve. Without the leader’s modeling of socially supportive behaviors and endorsement of mutual acceptance, people cannot feel safe enough to exhibit the necessary vulnerability to bond.
In other words, a leader sets the tone that enables real connection. In the book Primal Leadership, the authors describe the science behind our interpersonal influence. They label our limbic system (the part of the brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses) as an open-loop design, which “means that other people can change our very physiology – and so our emotions.” The premise is that the emotionally intelligent leader can shepherd their team’s physiology to inspire healthy, encouraging mindsets. What’s even more exciting is that positive emotions are so much more socially contagious than negative emotions, so unleash that smile and let loose that laugh!
Smiles and laughs aside, we have to address some of the barriers to connection in order to mitigate their impact. One barrier is a misunderstanding of AETCI 36-2909. When Laughlin personnel initially received the briefing on the AETCI, the severity of discipline for violations caused a fear which drove many to retreat from all student interaction. Although this was understandable given the organizational climate at the time, it is imperative that we accept the personal responsibility to evolve past this. The AETCI is designed to provide standardized guidelines for permanent party to avoid bias, and also to ensure that clear boundaries are established by identifying inappropriate interactions. This isn’t a new concept by any means - the perils of fraternization and bias are as old as human organization. By clarifying acceptable and unacceptable behavior, it can actually free us to actively pursue professional intimacy within those guidelines without fear of reprisal.
Another barrier to connectedness is often misidentified as increased operational tempo but is actually a lack of work satisfaction and engagement that Daniel Pink called “flow.” In his best seller DRiVE, he described flow as the condition where “the relationship between what a person had to do and what he could do was perfect. The challenge wasn’t too easy. Nor was it too difficult. It was a notch or two beyond his current abilities, which stretched the body and mind in a way that made the effort itself the most delicious reward.” When combined with autonomy and serving something bigger than yourself, that kind of balance results in focus, satisfaction, and engagement. Have you ever been so into a project or challenge that you lost track of time? That’s flow! An enduring lack of flow causes work to become dreary and burdensome, which is only exacerbated by increased operational demands. By remembering the reasons we each volunteered to serve, acknowledging how your current work influences the broader mission, and challenging yourself with demanding goals within your position, you can increase your chances of hitting flow. As President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
The last barrier to connection is what the Arbinger Institute calls an inward mindset -- the mindset that focuses only on our own personal goals and objectives without consideration for our impact on others. With an inward mindset, we view people as objects that need to be ignored, overcome, or manipulated. When acting inward, we’ll find ourselves justifying our actions and emotions by blaming others. How can we build a connection with another person when we don’t even see them as a human worth bonding with? And despite our best efforts, we are all susceptible to this in different areas and at different times. The key to mitigating this pitfall is shifting our mindset outward. Take a moment to view others people who matter like we do. Consider their needs, challenges, and objectives and focus on collective results. Then actively build relationships so that we can facilitate things to go right rather than jumping to correction when things inevitably go wrong. As our Arbinger coach, Richard Tatum, coined, “Connection before direction.”
By building relationships and overcoming the barriers to connection, we can transform Laughlin together!