Can It Be Done?

Two weeks ago, the Army announced plans “to require that all 1.1 million of its soldiers take intensive training in emotional resiliency. . . . The training, the first of its kind in the military, is meant to improve performance in combat and head off the mental health problems, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide, that plague about one-fifth of troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.” (See “Mental Stress Training is Planned for U.S. Soldiers.”)

It is an inevitable development, given increased awareness of the long-term psychic consequences of combat, but also our society’s increasing recognition of the benefits of counseling and the value of emotional intelligence. And, clearly, it is a good step – if a challenging one. Research suggests such a program could make a difference. The big question is: can the army really accept it?

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army’s chief of staff, noted that the program was an effort “to transform a military culture that has generally considered talk of emotions to be so much hand-holding, a sign of weakness. . . . I’m still not sure that our culture is ready to accept this,” General Casey said. “That’s what I worry about most.”

Our corporations have struggled for many years with similar efforts. “Culture change” has become an accepted concept for trying to shift organizations from “command and control” structures, where initiatives originate at the top, to more flat, participatory structures, delegating more responsibility to those out at the periphery. The idea is that a culture change is required to get employees to take more active responsibility for their work, enabling organizations to be more nimble and creative in adapting to change. They have to give up, among other things, the security of knowing what they are expected to do.

The concept of culture is useful here because it suggests deeply engrained habits, assumptions, identities, values, and rewards – an interlocking, mutually reinforcing set of beliefs and standards that have developed over many years. Much has been learned about the difficulty in implementing such agendas. Does the army know what is involved in trying to make such a shift work?

For one thing, a culture change has to be implemented on all levels, or else it is just talk. The rank and file will become cynical about what they are asked to do if the higher-ups just watch them try to do it without undertaking to do it themselves.

For another, it is easy to get superficial compliance, alongside deep-seated resistance and sabotage. The process of implementation can become a thinly disguised joke.

Finally, it will inevitably clash with other customs and procedures. For example, how will these new cultural norms fit in with traditional concepts of basic training? And will those responsible for basic training be willing to reconsider the changes required to support the new initiative?

Gen. Casey is right to be worried. What he proposes is a needed and well-intentioned step, but it is also sure to run up against extraordinary and largely hidden obstacles. And it is all too easy to imagine that no one will understand why it did not work.