Research Summary

Trust development in outdoor leadership

Character and Ability Key Elements for Building Trust in an Outdoor Leader

Journal of Experiential Education

Previous research indicates that the relationships that form between participants and leaders in outdoor programs are a key factor in the success of those programs. According to one study of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), participants’ rapport with instructors is correlated with leadership development, skills development, and environmental awareness. Recognizing the importance of strong relationships between leaders and participants, the authors of this study examined the role of trust in the relationships between leaders and participants in outdoor programs.

The authors first examined the literature to determine the importance of trust in outdoor leaders. They conclude that multidisciplinary literature indicates that trust is important in learning, cooperation, and performance within groups. But in examining the outdoor education literature, the authors found that although the concept of trust is well represented, a common understanding of what it is and how it develops is missing. They conclude that “seemingly, outdoor leaders have relied on the assumption that building trust among participants is a worthy goal and that trust is an integral part of experiential education, but they have failed to offer a clear understanding of what trust is and how it might be established.”

To help fill this void, the authors conducted two studies to examine how participants build trust in their leaders. The first exploratory study gathered a team of leaders from some of the largest and most well respected outdoor programs (including Outward Bound, NOLS, and others) and brainstormed factors they believed contributed to participants’ trust of leaders. They presented these factors in the form of a questionnaire to 181 participants in two university outdoor programs, and asked them to indicate the degree to which each of the factors influenced their trust in their leader.

The results indicate that the five most important factors in building trust in leaders were: honesty, calm during a crisis, knowing the itinerary, showing respect, and communicating effectively. Appearance was the least important factor. The researchers also worded the factors negatively in order to examine factors that erode trust. In this case, the factors that effected trust most negatively were: not knowing about safety, not remaining calm in a crisis, not possessing adequate experience, not being an effective communicator, and not practicing what she or he preaches. Again, appearance was least important. The authors conclude that the results point to the importance of technical skills in building trust, and also the important role of interpersonal skills. They also note that other researchers have found that appearance may play an important role in participants’ initial perceptions of a leader’s competence. They suggest that further research might explore how appearance affects trust.

The researchers also conducted a second study to test a model of trust development posited by Mayer et al. According to the Mayer model, three factors influence trust in a leader: ability, benevolence, and integrity. (A fourth predictor, propensity to trust, is an attribute of the person doing the trusting.) The researchers in this study presented 66 university students enrolled in outdoor skills courses with written vignettes that described hypothetical situations in which leaders displayed varying levels of ability, benevolence, and integrity. The results indicate that Mayer’s factors were predictors of the participants’ likelihood to trust the leader. Ability was the most important factor, followed by benevolence and integrity.

The researchers conclude that “taken together, these two studies suggest that both a leader’s ability and a leader’s character can influence participants’ trust.” And the researchers suggest that “along with giving the necessary time and attention to technical and interpersonal skills trainings, program managers might consider the importance of adding a character development component to their staff trainings.”

The Bottom Line

Positive relationships among participants and between participants and leaders are key to achieving outdoor education goals. Trust plays an important role in healthy relationships and contributes to better results within groups. This paper indicates that a leader’s technical ability is a key factor that helps participants build trust in their leader. And the research also suggests that character-based traits such as honesty, consistency, benevolence, and integrity are important predictors of trust. Program managers should consider this balance of technical and interpersonal skills when hiring and training outdoor leaders.