A former NASA flight director who worked with Russian scientists after the Cold War says making people trust you comes down to 3 things

NASA Paul Sean Hill
Sometimes you have to use the best weapon in your arsenal: wine. Paul Sean Hill

• Former NASA flight director Paul Hill said he clashed with his Russian counterparts at first, while working on a problem facing the International Space Station.

• Ultimately, he said the two teams were able to develop mutual respect for one another.

• Hill said demonstrating competence and bonding outside of the office helped turn the situation around.

You’re not going to automatically get along with everyone you work with.

Former NASA flight director Paul Hill ran into this problem around 1999, when he began working with his counterparts from Roscosmos — the Russian space program.

The two institutions had recently launched the International Space Station (ISS), and the Russian functional cargo block electrical system began to dim and run into battery problems.

Hill and his Russian counterparts had to fix the problem before they lost the entire structure.

“Early on, we were head-butting,” Hill told Business Insider. “Like you would see in the movies, Russians and Americans not getting along, not being helpful with each other. We couldn’t agree. Just the questions we were asking were pissing the Russians off.”

Hill, the author of “Leadership from the Mission Control Room to the Boardroom: A Guide to Unleashing Team Performance,” worked on 24 different space shuttle and ISS missions as a flight director and later led the investigation into the 2003 Columbia disaster.

However, he was also much younger than the leaders of the Russian team, which he said didn’t help the situation.

“The flight directors that I’m negotiating with were both old enough to be my father,” Hill said. “One was old enough to be my grandfather. They’d been doing this work for about as long as I’d been alive, if not longer.”

Hill said doing three things helped him earn their respect:

NASA Paul Sean Hill
‘We had spent enough time together that we started bridging some of those gaps,’ Hill said, of his evolving relationship with his Russian counterparts. Paul Sean Hill

Demonstrate competence

Hill and his team travelled to Russia several times, and the Russian team also visited the US on a few occasions. At first, the talks were somewhat hostile.

Over time, however, Hill said both sides began to recognise each other’s abilities.

“You could ask Yuri Budnik detailed questions about this part of this spacecraft, or this part of this system, and he could answer all of it without having to ask his experts,” he said. “He could sit back and you could tell he was thinking through the diagram.”

In the meantime, Hill strived to demonstrate to Budnik that he also was serious about the mission.

“I think he realised, this kid knows what he’s talking about,” Hill said. “This kid can get stuff done. He’s got the skills to make this happen.”

Spend time bonding outside of work

In addition, Hill grew to better understand the Russian team’s work culture, which was more relationship-based than he was used to at NASA.

“We had spent enough time together that we started bridging some of those gaps,” he said.

During one of the Russian team’s visits to the US, Hill decided to bring them to a winery two hours south of Houston. They all piled into a mini van and managed to get there in one piece, despite blowing out a tire en route. After enjoying some wine, members of the team began opening up more and even conversing with Hill in English — which he had previously been unaware the majority of them could speak.

“These top people from mission control in Moscow, they’re all milling around the parking lot carrying their own personal bottles of wine and drinking wine while we’re waiting for the car to get repaired,” he said.

He also invited the team over to his house for a Christmas party, where senior Russian flight controllers and directors mingled with his father-in-law, who was dressed like Santa. The Russian team members reciprocated by inviting Hill and his family to one of their raucous hotel parties.

“By the time we were finished, we had come together and really bonded as a team,” he said.

Cultivate avenues of mutual trust going forward

The two teams went on to fix the problem with the ISS by going component by component throughout the entire spacecraft. Ultimately, the Americans and Russians were able to run the electrical system at “a tenth of the capability that they thought was possible.”

Several months later, a shuttle returned to the space station with new batteries. Arriving to his shift in mission control, Hill found that the process had gotten off to a shaky start. He hopped on the voice loops to talk to Budnik. He said the resulting conversation was a high point of his career.

“I had come so far with the Russians and Yuri Budnik as far as this mutual trust goes,” he said. “Yuri said, ‘Paul Hill, it is so good to hear your voice, I know we’re going to solve this problem now.'”