There’s Definitely No “I” In A Military “Team”

30MAR2011. Before our first language class (which I really looked forward to…seriously I did), we were going to delve into team dynamics. This seemed appropriate enough since the U.S. military is all about teamwork. Our instructor, a former Marine with a Ph.D. in adult learning strategies (I’m not sure about the exact discipline), would turn out to be my favorite. You could tell he really enjoyed teaching and really knew his shit. I’ll call him Dr. R.  

He discussed team dynamics in relation to Human Terrain System (HTS) teams, which required task cohesion (same goals) and social cohesion (getting along). He said that leadership was about influencing others to complete or align peoples’ goals to mission goals. And illustrated the dimensions required for successful HTS teams using a Venn diagram (overlapping closed circles) that included: the ability to work effectively as a member of a team; technical skills; and the ability to function effectively in dangerous and ambiguous environments (sounds like corporate America, I thought. Only in this case, the dangers were far greater).

Looking around the room, I hoped that my fellow grunts were paying attention and taking this seriously because the tension was already mounting between certain folks and that shit was not going to fly downrange (at least I hoped it wouldn’t). I didn’t want to get stuck on a team with people who didn’t get along (aside from dying in a war zone, this was my biggest fear). It was already becoming clear that some of my fellow grunts who were former military had a bit of a chip on their shoulders, viewing those of us without any military experience with superstition. And while most of them had served their country as soldiers, they chose to join the military, and as a result, had an obligation to deploy (very brave and noble indeed).

Nonetheless, I understood their position (to some extent) and hoped they appreciated what some of us nonmilitary peeps brought to the table: research expertise. Still, the onus was on us to show that we were no different from them…any pomposity on the part of a researcher might ruin it for the rest of us. Time would tell how all of this would shape up…we were only approaching the end of the second week of training.

Dr. R was a patient instructor who used the Socratic method of teaching, but when it became apparent that some of my fellow grunts were being argumentative for the hell of it, he quickly put an end to it by answering questions about the Army correctly and thoroughly, illustrating his knowledge on and off the battlefield. He couched his lecture on team dynamics in the context of the levels of warfare – tactical, operational, and strategic. The tactical level was best viewed as team performance, and in the military, it represents what takes place on the ground – the “battles and engagements…executed to achieve military objectives…” by tactical units.

The operational level highlighted recruitment and retention of soldiers, and in the military, focuses on the “campaigns and major operations…planned, conducted, and sustained to achieve strategic objectives…” in the war theater or operational environment (OE). Finally, the strategic level was about organizational stability where team dynamics were concerned, and in the military, highlights “national or multinational strategic security objectives…and national resources to achieve…” them.

With a propensity to get lost in my own thoughts, I couldn’t help but think about this succinct, “doctrinized” approach to warfare. Surely, this had to be an iterative process and not just a uni-directional, top-down approach where the strategists conducted armchair analysis and disseminated their plans and orders to the operational and tactical units. How much of the challenges that we faced in Afghanistan up to this point (2011) was due to faulty strategic and operational assumptions that rendered our tactical approaches ineffective?

And how much of what was being communicated by those on the ground at the tactical level influenced changes at the operational and strategic levels? And what about the fact that Afghanistan is an amalgam of tribes that identifies along ethnic lines without a solid national identity, requiring various OE-specific engagements (kinetic, COIN, diplomacy, etc.)? I hoped that we’d have an opportunity to delve more deeply into the levels of warfare, but obviously asking Dr. R about them during his team dynamics lecture wasn’t a good idea.

Dr. R continued his discussion by highlighting team effectiveness and introduced a heuristic model, which, appropriately, included consideration of the task design, team composition, and organizational context that required both internal and external processes. Also, determining the extent to which this made a team successful required effectiveness measures, performance outcomes, member attitudes, and behavioral outcomes. (Simple, right? Especially in a war zone.)

I wondered about the team dynamics of the HTS teams currently deployed. Once in awhile, we’d hear snippets about an authoritarian Team Leader who treated his team horribly, or a cantankerous Senior Social Scientist who thought that his Ph.D. made him superior and all-knowing. But we’d also hear about teams that were doing well, with the units they were attached to giving positive evaluations about their performance. When it came to positive snippets, it was always about a team doing well, but when it came to negative snippets, it was almost always about an individual who was causing problems.

Military folks holding logs.

It’s amazing (not in a good way) how one person can wreak havoc on the morale and performance of an entire team. Of course, this depends on the severity of the issue, whether it’s addressed in a timely manner, whether the person is removed, etc. Otherwise, if the toxicity festers it can destroy a team. Just thinking about this made me anxious…and the idea of having to deal with these types of problems downrange worried me. At this point, I wasn’t sure how HTS leadership mitigated team toxicity downrange, but I’d hoped that people were dealt with fairly and justly. From my perspective as a trainee, I hadn’t been around long enough to know, and I was going to suspend judgment until I witnessed things for myself.

It’s not that I’m naïve about the realities of human interactions, personalities, and politics in the workplace, it’s the idea of being in a dangerous environment and losing sight of this as a result of infighting. We were deploying into a country that included groups of people who viewed us as enemies, so we didn’t need folks within our own ranks who disliked each other and refused to get along.

After our second smoke break, Dr. R addressed team conflict in terms of tasks and relationships. The former (task conflict) entailed a perception of disagreement among group members with regard to differences in viewpoints, ideas, and opinions. The latter (relationship conflict) included perceptions of personality incompatibility, annoyance, and animosity among individuals. Whatever types of conflict facing a team, identifying and resolving it was going to be important.

So maybe it wasn’t so much about team conflict, but WHETHER it was resolved, and HOW successfully it was resolved. A lot of this, I’m assuming, would fall on the Team Leader given that he or she was responsible for setting the parameters of conduct for his or her respective team. All I kept hoping (and praying) for was to end up on a good team with a great Team Leader. For now, I had to focus on getting through training and making sure that my transition to a Department of Army Civilian (DAC) position was successful.

I was a bit concerned about this because, in addition to all the information that we had to retain about the Army, I now had to format my resume to adhere to USA.gov standards, which was tedious. But it was a temporary inconvenience and soon enough, my evenings would be mine again. And none of this would matter if I couldn’t transition successfully to a DAC position…not the junior-level social scientist position, but the senior-level one.

The evening after lecture, the leadership from XYZ Defense held a resume tutorial session at my hotel. I was definitely taking advantage of this and waited around until they showed up. I met with the Director, and he was very thorough about what changes I needed to implement in order to highlight my research experience. I took copious notes and was eager to get back to my hotel room to start the editing process.

But before I could make it out of the hotel lobby, I was stopped by a few of the other social scientists who asked me to share what I’d learned. I did, and at the expense of coming across rude, I kept it short because I really wanted to edit my resume, grab a bite to eat, review my notes for the following day’s lecture, and get a few hours of sleep. It was already 2200, but I was determined to get it all done…even sleep.