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Stephanie Durnford, Tara Carleton, Anil Gonsalves, Kari A. O'Grady, Ph.D.

Knowing the Mission: An Exploration of the Impact of Team Trust, Leadership, and Spirituality on Resilience

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Human Terrain Teams (HTT) were developed in 2006, with the first team deploying in early 2007 to Afghanistan and later Iraq. The hope was to decrease antagonism within country and to increase U.S. military’s possibility of survival in areas of insurgency. There was recognition that U.S. military often ignored or underplayed sociocultural climate. HTTs were an attempt to improve in country relationships (Lamb, Orton, Davies, & Pikulsky, 2013). HTTs were primarily composed of civilians and retired military.  Previous research has shown that team trust and leadership are factors that contribute to team resilience.  Earlier research has begun to show evidence that spirituality is related to resilience. Due to the high-reliability nature of the HTTs and the dangerous environment in which they worked, team trust becomes an important aspect to examine. Team trust and cohesion are influenced by multiple factors, including the leadership at the front of the team (Mach, Dolan, & Tzafrir, 2010). Further, the acceptance of the leader, the leader’s actions, goals, and decisions influenced a team’s trust (Mach et al., 2010). Research also showed that the number one positively endorsed leader attribute to success was trustworthiness, including the quality of one’s integrity (Reave, 2005). Further, lack of leadership integrity also was found to be associated with leadership failure (Reave, 2005). Research has found that a shared leadership style, which allows for a “collective influence of group on members” (Day, Gronn, & Salas, 2004, p. 861), positively impacts a team’s resilience in the face of challenges, including being able to allow the most qualified person to take the lead when necessary (Ranthun & Matkin, 2014). Further, Dirks (1999) found that high-trust in leadership translated into the team’s motivation being higher toward joint efforts, as opposed to low-trust in leadership translating to motivations more focused on individual efforts. 

This research sought to understand how team members and leaders experienced trust and resilience during their high-risk experiences within HTT. Using an iterative qualitative process, the current study utilizes content analysis via NVivo software to identify themes within the five semi-structured interviews conducted with former HTT members. This study is part of a larger study on team resilience and spirituality. Preliminary findings from the study suggest that HTT members experienced strengthened team trust between team members when mission understanding was both clear and modeled by leadership. Preliminary findings also suggest an experience of team resilience, as defined by continuing the stated mission despite challenging circumstances. Further, spirituality helped strengthen both team trust and leadership, impacting team resilience during extreme circumstances, particularly when modeled by the team leader. This study informs those who are interested in understanding the role a leader and trust may play in strengthening the team’s experience of resilience during high-risk situations, such as that experienced by HTT members during their respective deployments.


Day, D. V., Gronn, P., & Salas, E. (2004). Leadership capacity in teams. The Leadership Quarterly, 15, 857-880.

Dirks, K. T. (1999). The effects of interpersonal trust on work group performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84(3), 445-455.

Lamb, C. J., Orton, J. D., Davies, M. C., & Pikulsky, T. T. (2013). Human terrain teams: An organizational innovation for sociocultural knowledge in irregular warfare. Washington, D.C.: Institute of World Politics Press.

Mach, M., Dolan, S., & Tzafrir, S. (2010). The differential effect of team members’ trust on team performance: The mediation role of team cohesion. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 83, 771-794. doi:10.1348/096317909X473903

Ranthun, A., & Matkin, G. S. (2014). Leading dangerously: A case study of military teams of shared leadership in dangerous environments. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, 21(3), 244-256.

Reave, L. (2005). Spiritual values and practices related to leadership effectiveness. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(5), 655-687.


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