Psychological Safety in The Military and Elite Sports

Research, Workshops, Practices and Exercises

Psychological Safety in The Military and Elite Sports

royal marines

There’s not a great deal of research or writing available about psychological safety in the military, despite one of the best leadership books available – “Turn the Ship Around” by David Marquet, being about how he used empowering leadership and psychological safety to drastically improve the performance of the crew of the US Navy Submarine, “Santa Fe”.

Two research papers I’ve found include: Team Training, Team Learning, Leadership and Psychology Safety: A Study of Team Training and Team Learning Behavior during a Swedish Military Staff Exercise, and Psychological Safety During Military Integrations.

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I’ve also spoken to experts in high performing teams across industries and sectors ranging from corporate enterprise and technology, to elite sports and the Armed Forces. Through those discussions it’s clear that there is a universality to the elements required to create psychological safety and performance:

Five key elements of High Performing Military Teams

1: Trust in each other on the team.
2: Consistent, continuous practice, improvement and high capability.
3: Shared values and high standards of behaviour.
4: Very clear goals, with people given autonomy about *how* to achieve them.
5: Valuing the team’s achievement over personal glory.

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High Trust

Trust is key in any team. Patrick Lencioni highlighted this as the primary dysfunction in his classic Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Trust is fundamental, and the higher the demand on performance of a team, whether it’s winning a world cup, rescuing hostages from a building, or completing a project, the higher the bar is set for that trust between team members. Without trust, there is no psychological safety, and it is the responsibility of all team members to build and reinforce that trust.

5 dysfunctions of a team

Great Expertise

An approach that values expertise, experience, and rewards continuous learning to build high levels of capability is also crucial. According to Chris Shambrook of K2, elite sportspeople practice continuously and receive constant feedback (and advice) about how to improve. As Andy Parsons, ex- commanding Officer in the British Army told me, it’s the same in the Armed Forces: if you’re not busy working, then you should be practising, or training someone else (and of course training others is one of the best ways to embed your own capability too). Those of us in businesses and organisations can, and should, adopt this approach to constant learning and improvement. Is the thing you’re working on today teaching you something new or helping you improve something you already do?

Shared Values

Shared values are crucial to any high performing team. Different teams may have different values, but they should always be explicit, positive, and crucially, owned by the team. It is through a set of shared values that team members understand the expectations upon them and what they can expect of others on the team. It’s also not enough to simply state those values – they must be translated into actual behaviours: maybe even a list of “do’s and don’ts”. Standards of behaviour should be as high as possible, whether it’s always being on time for meetings or making sure your machine gun is always in perfect working order.

I spoke to Gareth Tennant about his leadership in the Royal Marines, and he told me that in the armed forces, they use a concept called “mission command” – the clear expression of intent by commanders, and the freedom of subordinates to act to achieve that intent. That is to say, if the goal, and the mission, is as clear as possible, then people should be free to act as they see fit to get the job done (within a set of constraints such as operational limits or budgets). Many, even most, organisations fail to do this effectively, and many organisations possess proscriptive cultures that restrict the freedom of people to achieve that goal.

The Team Comes First.

In the tech world, there exists the idea of “rockstar” developers, who achieve 10x what “normal” developers manage do. As Google’s Project Aristotle found, the presence of these individual high performers doesn’t actually increase team performance – indeed, it can hinder it. Every team member should be focussed on what they can bring to the team, not their own personal glory or results. Prioritise and praise team members for helping each other, even when it impacts their own results.

To achieve true high performance: trust in your people, set them free, maintain standards of excellence, practice and improve, and avoid seeking personal glory.

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