Although the free expression of ideas is required for innovation and high performance to grow in the workplace, an individual group member’s exercise of free expression in the workplace also carries real social and personal risks. People are aware that free expression of their ideas always carries the risk of them being viewed as ignorant, incompetent, or disruptive. Many people will behave in ways to minimize this risk, often keeping new ideas to themselves. This is particularly prevalent when people believe they may be critically evaluated by others or have experienced some form of disrespect in the past. And, many people who work in elite performance or high-stress settings would agree that, formally or informally, we are always being evaluated by others.
Rico hadn’t really slept or eaten anything of substance for three days. A few plant roots and some grubs he and his teammates had dug from an old tree stump comprised the sum total of their “nutrition” over that time. For three days they had been moving quickly through the jungle-dense forest and swamps known as Waccamaw National Forest, stopping only for a short break here and there to re-orient and treat minor injuries. Then suddenly, just before dawn, they were surrounded and shoved to the ground by armed men and dogs, handcuffed, cloth bags placed over their heads and loaded into trucks for the trip on dirt roads to a building where they were now being held in isolated individual cells. For the next three days, Rico and his teammates would be held captive, with very little food or sleep. They would be interrogated, derogated, threatened and psychologically manipulated to test their grasp of team survival skills. All of this stress was the culmination event for their survival training course and an intensive effort to cement the importance of the values and behaviors they had been taught.
In this case, Rico and thirty-nine other young military men and women were undergoing the third and final week of a military survival training course. These courses, which are military requirements for certain occupational specialties, are conducted by all of the military services and are referred to as SERE courses. The acronym stands for survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE). The course teaches values and behaviors which will help American military members survive in austere conditions and evade enemy capture. If captured, those values and behaviors will help them to escape or, at a minimum, continue to support U.S. objectives despite captivity. For many years this training has been both feared and lauded as some of the best the military has to offer. Most students emerge from this shared high-stress experience and intrusive high-risk learning environment with a transformative experience of personal victory and enhanced confidence. The vast majority report an increase in their ability to manage the physical, and even more powerful mentally and emotionally intimate, risk in a potentially life-threatening environment.
A critically important objective in this training is to ensure that the pressures faced by students are sufficient to produce the uncomfortable stress that motivates open-mindedness and cooperation between all team members, but is not sufficient to produce a lasting experience of futility or failure that could damage individual or group confidence or resilience. Such a negative result is known as “learned helplessness”. This fine balance of stress and success enhances the member’s confidence in their ability to spring-back from failure, speak-out and lead in high-risk environments. It also creates a bonding trust between team members.
The shared and unavoidable physical, emotional, mental and spiritual vulnerabilities exposed in the most stressful of SERE school phases contributes to a strong bonding between team members. Members learn to support or insulate each other when enemies attempt to separate them with actions intended to create fear, shame and disgrace. The nature of the SERE pressures, learning objectives and performance requirements facilitate a vulnerability that helps strip-away the “tough-guy” facades and “intellectual tactics” many people use to camouflage their fears and maintain their personal illusions of control. Class members share each other’s highest and lowest moments, deeply embarrassing mistakes and times of despair and helplessness. Every team member, regardless of rank, also has opportunities to show strength through mental and emotional discipline and to rise to lead by example and by knowledge. In the midst of inescapable vulnerability members learn to value and support each other. SERE training fosters a whole new level of confidence, belonging and resilience. It fosters the development of “inclusion” at its highest level. For the vast majority of students, at graduation, SERE training is rated as one of the most significant and beneficial experiences of their life.
Some of the most current research on inclusiveness and creativity in organizations shows that psychological safety is a critical factor in creation of an atmosphere where learning, innovation and trust can develop (Edmondson, 2019). When it comes to creating environments where team members develop trust and psychological safety, the U.S. military does this very effectively in its survival training schools. Like the military, organizations that effectively support the development of psychological safety in their work teams have a real competitive advantage in productivity, creativity and in retention of personnel. For many years, executives and project teams have taken advantage of training in adventure settings (sailing crews, climbing teams, “trust workshops”, etc.) where shared stress facilitates bonding and trust. An understanding of the principles required for development of psychological safety can help leaders support its development in any group. While the extremely demanding conditions of military survival training are probably not necessary for the enhancement of creativity and resilience in most work teams, the same basic principles are critical to any team where creativity, resilience and productivity are desired.
Achieving the required delicate balance of fear, authenticity, respect and perseverance requires well motivated participants and mature, skillful leaders. The effective use of these principles in the workplace requires a similar balance. The critical components to create this delicate balance are:
- Employees and teams, motivated by a meaningful challenge in which failure and discomfort is a real possibility,
- Support from patient leaders who are skilled at active listening and who know how to affirm – and build on – even the least enlightening of member input
- The sensitivity and social skill to draw out reticent contributors and authentically affirm their contributions
- Additionally, leaders who can use humor, or direct correction if necessary, to chastise impatient or overly critical members can be quite effective
Effective leaders will support all employee’s development of courage to present their ideas and risk potential criticism or rejection of their thoughts in the daily work setting. All team members must develop personal confidence that they, and their ideas, will be treated with respect by all other team members. Team humor can be helpful, but leaders must ensure the humor is actually inclusive and not a subtly pointed rejection of the person and the thought. It is important for leaders to understand the dynamic balance this process involves. However, actual development of this kind of trust requires more than an academic understanding of the process. Actual development of creative, resilient team trust requires a shared experience of uncomfortable stress, a desire on the part of all team members to contribute to group solutions and the affirming presence of peer and leader support – ie. authentic reassurance of one’s value to the group and mission. There is no way to eliminate risk if one is present and engaged in the world and the workplace. The team leader’s job is to make sure subtle disrespect and social punishment are minimized – and that affirmation of an individual’s creative value to the team is respected. Members unwilling to engage in this process should probably look for employment elsewhere.
Further evidence-based exploration of this topic is available from many sources. An excellent current reference is:
Edmondson, A. (2019). The Fearless Organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation and growth, Wiley
Carroll Greene is a retired Air Force Colonel and consulting psychologist with over 40 years of experience in behavioral health management and operational support to military special operations. For more than 25 years, he developed and led psychological applications to assess, select, and train elite special operations personnel for organizations in the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).