The Psychological Intangibles of Soldier Readiness
Part II: Concept Criticality and Training
By Dr. Christopher Vowels
U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences
Dr. Steven Aude
December 6, 2019
* All 3 articles are located in the PDF below
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Part two in this three-part series is designed to provide NCOs with the results of research conducted on the intangible psychological concepts that contribute to Soldier readiness. It draws upon the intangibles identified in the scientific literature (part one) to identify their criticality to readiness along with effective training methods. To further refine the list of intangibles identified in part one, unit members of a Brigade Combat Team (BCT) were asked for their professional opinion through surveys, interviews, and focus groups. Note that a more extensive technical report of this study was previously published and is available online (Aude, Keller-Glaze, Nicely, Shuffler, & Vowels, 2014b). The following research questions were examined during this phase of the research.
- What intangibles do unit leaders and Soldiers deem critical to Soldier mission readiness?
- What are the intangibles that are already being trained and the strengths of that training?
- Is training on intangibles achieved by the training of tangibles (tactical and technical training)? If so, what tangible training best develops intangible constructs?
- What are the best examples or experiences that mentally/psychologically prepare Soldiers for mission readiness?
- What are the training gaps and immediacy of the need for intangible constructs?
Data collection occurred at Fort Hood, Texas with Soldiers who were preparing for deployment. Data collection sessions consisted of five focus groups and 16 interviews, resulting in a total sample size of 56 Soldiers. The sample was selected to provide representation from various rank levels with backgrounds in training (i.e., design, planning, execution, and experience with training).
Table 1 displays the breakdown of Soldiers by their rank cohort. Interviews were used to obtain responses from brigade and battalion S3s (operations) and other training personnel who were familiar with the design, planning, and execution of training. A focus group method was used to collect data from those who make sure training plans are executed, such as company commanders and first sergeants. Focus groups were also used to obtain the perspectives of those who conduct and/or receive training at the small team level, such as junior NCOs and junior enlisted Soldiers.
The interview and focus group sessions followed similar procedures. Interviews were allotted 60 minutes for completion and focus groups were allotted 90 minutes. All Soldiers were first given a Privacy Act Statement and Informed Consent Statement before the session. Across all sessions no one opted to not participate in the data collection. Next, Soldiers filled out a questionnaire. The questionnaire consisted of a list of behavioral statements. Each behavioral statement represented some part of the intangible constructs identified by the literature review. Due to the conceptual overlap across intangible constructs, some of the behavioral statements represented more than one intangible construct. Soldiers rated each behavioral statement from: Criticality to readiness, effectiveness of current training, need for improvement in existing training, and frequency of training needed. Scaled response options for each rated criterion are listed in Table 2.
After Soldiers completed the questionnaire, they were asked a series of open-ended questions. The initial part of the question protocol asked Soldiers to elaborate on their ratings of intangibles on the aforementioned questionnaire. The latter part of the protocol inquired about the broader set of research questions.
Means and standard deviations were calculated for all of the behavioral statements on each of the criterion and a highest to lowest mean score listing was created. A primary focus of this phase of the research was to focus on a narrower set of important intangibles. The top mean score ratings for each criterion are highlighted in the results section to follow. The lowest rated mean scores across each criterion were also explored to gain an understanding of what intangibles are of lesser importance and why.
The desired outcome of the qualitative data analysis was to identify the highest frequency themes. Additionally, the intent of the analysis was to examine the content of those themes in relation to the quantitative survey of intangible behavioral statements. Qualitative analysis of interviews and focus groups consisted of coding each session for themes. Themes were categorized and counted under research questions and only the most frequent themes were discussed. The analysis of the qualitative interview and focus group data was done using a three-step process.
Facilitators and recorders from the data collection read through each transcript and identified a tentative list of themes. They then came to a consensus on themes for each research question, thereby creating a master list. All coders then used the theme list to code the comments from the same transcript. The majority of comments were coded the same way among all coders. Any discrepancies among coders were discussed and issues were resolved prior to coding all remaining transcripts.
Twenty one total transcripts (16 interview transcripts and five focus group transcripts) were split among three coders. Each coder coded 14 transcripts. This allowed for each transcript to be coded twice which would allow for coding accuracy checks in Step III. Coders coded themes at the session level. When a theme was mentioned once in a session, it was reported once in the results. Similarly, when a theme was mentioned five times in a session it was reported only once in the results. This allowed for the calculation of theme counts among sessions while controlling for method issues that could result from analyzing interview and focus group data together.
This method of calculating theme counts does not give greater weight to focus groups where multiple Soldiers are likely to mention the same theme. This also mitigates the repetitive mention of a theme in the same session. Consequently, the session-level method of calculating themes reduces potential sources of falsely reporting the frequency of a given theme.
To facilitate citation of in-depth descriptions of Soldiers' comments, each coder highlighted the accompanying narrative of a given coded comment. This procedure allowed analysts to include descriptive statements representative of a particular theme. Thus, theme descriptions were able to be reported in a way that reflects the richness and depth of a given theme.
Each transcript was coded twice by two different coders. Following coding, the two coders met and discussed the themes they identified and the respective text from the transcripts that they highlighted. A total of three two-hour accuracy sessions took place among coders where they reviewed the transcript that they had both coded.
During each session, one coder created a new document for each transcript that included all of the agreed upon themes from both coders. In the accuracy sessions, coders found, discussed, and resolved differences, thus providing greater accuracy in the coding process.
Results and Findings
Most critical intangibles
Intangible criticality mean scores ranged from 3.16 to 4.70. Ratings of three on the response scale equates to an intangible being "somewhat critical." To some extent, all of the intangibles that were investigated reflect some level of importance to Soldier mission readiness. That most, if not all, intangibles are important also found support among interview and focus group Soldiers. Twenty-four percent of qualitative sessions mentioned that all of the intangibles examined by the questionnaire were important to Soldier mission readiness. However, further analysis of the highest-rated intangibles from the questionnaire, together with themes from interviews and focus groups, identified several intangibles that appear to be more critical to Soldier mission readiness than others.
Notably, several questionnaire items represented more than one intangible. For example, the item, "Doing what is right (legally and morally) even when no one is looking" represented both integrity and authenticity. The representation of multiple intangibles within an item reflects the overlap that exists between behavioral demonstrations of the intangibles. Thus, overlapping intangibles are combined in the following discussion.
Intangibles with the highest mean score ratings (listed highest to lowest) that also found support among interview and focus group participants were:
In several instances, Soldiers discussed how and why these intangibles were most critical. Starting with the most critical intangible, quantitative and qualitative findings are discussed in greater detail below.
Doing what is right (legally and morally) even when no one is looking was rated the most critical among all of the behaviors (M= 4.70, SD=.83). Additionally, seven out of the 21 qualitative sessions (33%) mentioned the criticality of these intangibles with regards to Soldier mission readiness. Soldier comments concerning integrity/authenticity stressed the importance of training Soldiers to do what is right because they will be put in positions where they need to act appropriately with little or no guidance from supervisors. For example, one Soldier stated, “We preach this to Soldiers all the time because they might find themselves unsupervised on the battlefield as they interact with the local population” (Soldier interview, 2014). Another Soldier mentioned that these intangibles were important to a leader's trust in their Soldiers, “We have to trust these guys to be able to operate without direct supervision. They need to make moral/ethical judgment calls. That’s my take, being able to trust the team leader or the Soldier as an individual" (Soldier interview, 2014).
Acting in the absence of orders, when existing orders no longer fit the situation, or when unforeseen opportunities or threats arise was among the most critical behaviors to Soldier mission readiness (M= 4.63, SD=.70). And ten out of the 21 sessions (48%) mentioned the criticality of this intangible with regards to Soldier mission readiness. When discussing this intangible, Soldier comments focused on the importance of being a self-starter. One Soldier said that when existing orders no longer fit the situation, or when unforeseen opportunities or threats arise, acting in the absence of orders is important because “Soldiers should know what to do even when someone is not there to tell them what to do” (Soldier interview, 2014). Similarly, another Soldier commented it is important because “there isn’t always time for someone to explain what needs to be done” (Soldier interview, 2014). These comments suggest that initiative is a critical factor in dealing with challenges, uncertainty, and the ambiguity that occurs during missions.
Recovering quickly from setbacks, shock, injuries, adversity, and stress while maintaining a mission and organizational focus was among the most critical behaviors to Soldier mission readiness (M= 4.61, SD=.65) with nine out of the 21 sessions (43%) mentioning the criticality of this intangible.
The ability to keep going, even when exhausted, hungry, afraid, cold, and wet, was among the most critical behaviors to Soldier mission readiness (M= 4.59, SD=.63). This intangible was not frequently mentioned in the sessions with regards to criticality to readiness, yet it was mentioned in other areas such as training effectiveness and the need for new training.
Displaying commitment and allegiance to the Army in support of the United States was among the most critical behaviors to Soldier mission readiness (M= 4.57, SD=.87). Eight out of the 21 sessions (38%) mentioned the criticality of these intangibles with regards to Soldier mission readiness. In their comments, most Soldiers identified these intangibles as a natural part of Army culture that is ingrained in all Soldiers.
Accepting responsibility and consequences for one's actions was a frequent theme concerning critical intangibles to Soldier mission readiness. It was mentioned in seven out of 21 sessions (33%). Results showed it was among the most critical behaviors to Soldier mission readiness (M= 4.54, SD=.93). Soldiers commented that accountability was important at all levels and that a concern is Soldiers taking responsibility for their actions.
Demonstrating flexibility of mind to anticipate or adapt to uncertain or changing situations was a frequent theme concerning critical intangibles to Soldier mission readiness. It was mentioned in ten out of 21 sessions (48%). Relative to other behaviors on the questionnaire, results showed that this behavior was between the most critical and least critical behaviors (M= 4.32, SD=.88). Several Soldiers commented on the need for improvement concerning this intangible. Some Soldiers' comments addressing the criticality of mental agility were: “Soldiers need to be able to react to a change in a mission,” “you might not be able to train for every event that may occur,” and “it ties in with resiliency as well…if your team leader goes down, somebody has to step up and take charge” (Soldier interviews, 2014.) In summary, Soldiers suggested that mental agility is a prerequisite for taking initiative.
Most critical intangibles to effective officer and NCO leadership
Soldiers were asked to identify intangibles that were particularly important to officer and NCO leadership. The intangibles that were most critical were found in two overlapping areas. The first critical area included pride and discipline. The second critical area included empathy, duty, warrior ethos, and warrior spirit. Combined, they were mentioned in 29% of the sessions.
The second critical area concerned behaviors such as displaying care and concern for Soldiers (19% of sessions), sharing hardships with fellow Soldiers (10% of sessions), and accepting responsibly for others (14% of sessions). Combined, these related behaviors were mentioned in 43% of sessions.
Soldiers commented that intangibles related to taking care of Soldiers were important to both NCOs and officers, but especially for NCOs. Soldiers also noted that setting and maintaining high standards was critically important for NCOs. Concerning critical intangibles for officers, Soldiers commented on the importance of prioritizing tasks and accepting responsibility for others.
Effective training methods
Soldiers were asked to identify effective methods for training intangibles. Soldiers frequently mentioned (24% of sessions) that these behaviors were not overtly trained. For example, one Soldier said, “We don't have classes for this, but I think that throughout our training cycle we touch a bit on everything” (Soldier interview, 2014). This comment generally provides a summary of how Soldiers felt intangibles were being trained. Therefore, the discussion of effective training methods focused primarily on training designed for other purposes (e.g., skills-based training and operations).
The methods that Soldiers identified can be categorized into two broad categories: daily training (e.g., physical fitness training) and event-based training (e.g., field exercises). The methods that Soldiers identified are discussed below with comments from the sessions to describe why the method was effective.
Soldiers' comments concerning effective daily training were categorized into two themes. The first theme, “on the job training/occurs naturally in the course of the day” was frequent (57% of sessions). Soldier comments suggested that on the job training was effective for training the intangibles. Further, Soldiers commented that they preferred this method of utilizing hands-on training to classroom training. Soldiers said that though the intangibles are not overtly trained, most of the intangibles are learned on a daily basis in garrison by leaders who set a good example. Some of the behaviors that were mentioned (related intangibles in parentheses), were prioritizing tasks (warrior ethos/warrior spirit), sharing hardships (empathy), displaying care and concern for Soldiers (empathy/duty), and setting and maintaining standards (pride/discipline).
The second theme identified physical fitness training (PT) as an effective daily training method that is used for training some of the intangibles. This theme was frequently mentioned (29% of sessions). Soldiers identified that PT was an effective method for training on the following behaviors: Physically face fear, danger and adversity (personal courage), and sharing hardships (empathy).
There were four different types of event-based training identified as effective means for training the intangibles that received frequent comments in the interview and focus group sessions. The four different types were: Skills-based training, resiliency and medical training, Soldier development programs, and leader feedback.
Table 3 displays the different types of skills-based training that were mentioned for effectively training intangibles and the percentage of times the methods were mentioned in focus group and interview sessions.
Soldiers affirmed that the effectiveness of these training types was due to the hands-on, realistic nature of simulating and practicing skills/missions. Further, incorporating uncertainty and making training challenging/stressful were identified as adding to the realism in training and thereby enhancing training effectiveness.
Skills-based training was cited as an effective means for training several intangibles, such as resiliency, hardiness, warrior ethos, warrior spirit, grit, will, initiative, mental agility, adaptability, and situational awareness.
Resiliency and medical training
Table 4 displays the resiliency and medical training that were mentioned for effectively training intangibles and the percentage of times the training methods were mentioned in focus group and interview sessions. Soldiers specifically mentioned the effectiveness of resiliency and medical training for training personal courage and self-confidence.
Soldiers identified resiliency and combat life-saver training as effective training methods for preparing Soldiers for the realities of combat. For example, one Soldier said, recalling combat life saver training, “… you're dealing with the human side though, the guys with arms off or ‘dead’ and dealing with that. We expose Soldiers to videos and it sets their mind working. Exposing them to medic training would be good” (Soldier interview, 2014).
As with the skills-based training, the comments concerning medical training effectiveness stressed the importance of providing realism in training. For example, one Soldier commented on medical training that he thought was effective, “It’s a realistic scenario. It’s built up to look like an Iraqi neighborhood. The wounds are realistic-looking on the mannequins, so it’s a good trainer. Anything that we can do to add to that realism… more is better” (Soldier interview, 2014).
Soldier development programs
Table 5 displays the different types of Soldier development programs that were mentioned for effectively training intangibles and the percentage of times the training methods were mentioned in focus group and interview sessions. Soldiers mentioned three Soldier development programs, specifically: Basic Training Problem Solving exercises, Ranger School, and Mungadai Training (a type of survival training that is used to push Soldiers to their limits). Soldiers said these programs were effective in training self-confidence, grit, will, resiliency, and hardiness. The main features of the development programs that were apparent in comments were their ability to push Soldiers to their limits and that the programs were challenging. Concerning the difficulty of training, one Soldier said, “You learn what you are capable of, how far you can push yourself, and just keep going” (Soldier interview, 2014).
Another effective characteristic of these programs was team-based training. Soldiers commented that challenging team-based training contributed to cohesion and building trust within their team.
Table 6 displays the different types of leader feedback methods that were mentioned for effectively training intangibles and the percentage of times the methods were mentioned in focus group and interview sessions. Soldiers mentioned that leader feedback methods were an effective way of training most of the intangibles. Specifically, Soldiers identified the effectiveness of counseling for training resiliency and hardiness. Soldiers also mentioned that mentorship was an effective means for instilling discipline.
Ineffective training methods
Soldiers also identified several training methods that were ineffective for training the intangibles. Table 7 displays the different types of ineffective training methods and the percentage of times the methods were mentioned in focus group and interview sessions. Far more Soldiers commented that classroom training was ineffective rather than effective. Further, Soldiers mentioned they did not think using PowerPoint slides, a common classroom method of instruction, was an effective means for training intangibles.
Soldiers provided comments criticizing the quality of some skills-based training. Specifically some Soldiers mentioned skills-based training was ineffective when the training appeared to be too simplistic or “check-the-box” training. One Soldier provided a detailed explanation on the ineffectiveness of “check-the-box” training: “There's a gap in the sense of rifle training: they train to qualify, not train for combat. It's checking the block. There's not a lot of units going out there to do training on that. All of the training I've done is to check the box rather than training to build teamwork” (Soldier interview, 2014).
Theme Findings Pertinent to Training Development
In addition to what has been presented, several broad themes were identified in the qualitative data.
These are themes that have important implications for the development of intangibles and should be considered when selecting the most effective learning methods and measurement tools for training these constructs. A discussion of each theme is provided below.
Effective features for training intangibles
There were several comments and recommendations about features that should be incorporated into training in order to effectively train the intangibles. Table 8 displays the most frequently recommended training features and the percentage of sessions that the features were mentioned across all sessions.
Soldiers frequently stated that training should be made to be difficult or challenging. The most effective training experiences that Soldiers discussed referenced training that pushed them beyond their limits and made them grow to reach new limits. Soldiers also frequently mentioned their desire to have hands-on training that utilized experiential learning. Similarly, Soldiers stressed the importance of making training realistic. These recommendations point to the effectiveness of hands-on, realistic, and difficult training. These features tended to be discussed when describing the effectiveness of training methods (field exercises, medical training, etc.). Soldiers also noted that repetition was required for gaining and maintaining proficiency on the intangibles.
Soldiers suggested that more team-based training should be done to build trust and cohesion. Further, Soldiers wanted training to include dealing with uncertainty and stress. The current operational environment contains high levels of uncertainty and can cause high levels of stress. Thus, in order to effectively train Soldiers to be mission ready, training would need to incorporate these important features.
Challenges in Developing Training for Intangibles
There were several themes regarding challenges in developing training for intangibles:
Not enough time for training
The most prevalent theme identified in the data regarding challenges in developing training for intangibles was “not enough time for training.” This particular theme was mentioned in 13 of the 21 interview / focus group sessions (62%). A sample of comments included, “I don’t think that we have time to train on all of these,” “What we don’t have is time. To make Soldiers better you have to have more time between deployments,” and “Like every unit in the Army, there are more things to do than we have time to do” (Soldier interviews, 2014).
General difficulties in training a behavior
The next most common theme was general difficulties in training a behavior. This particular theme was mentioned in nine of the 21 interview/focus group sessions (43%) and was often associated with the intangible construct of courage. For example, one Soldier said:
Even with realistic scenarios, Soldiers know it isn’t real. When they get hit, they know they can turn off their MILES gear. There really isn’t a good way to train someone that just saw their buddy get shot in the face to then go and storm a building. I don’t know of a way to realistically simulate danger and adversity so that Soldiers can learn to face it. Everyone knows that it isn’t real. (Soldier interview, 2014)
Behaviors that are inherent to each person
The next most common theme identified in the data was behaviors are inherent to each person / cannot be trained / either a Soldier is proficient or they are not. This particular theme was mentioned in seven of the 21 interview/focus group sessions (33%). For example, one Soldier said, “I can’t say that (these cannot be trained) because a lot of them are inherent to being in the Army” (Soldier interview, 2014). Another suggested, “These aren’t things that are taught out of a book. So it’s what… a Soldier is taking out of a situation. It’s all on the person” (Soldier interview, 2014).
Soldiers were asked to rate each intangible on its criticality to Soldier mission readiness and whether current training associated with its development was effective. The difference between the two scores was then used to identify gaps in current training effectiveness and needs for training. Intangibles with the largest gap between rated criticality and training effectiveness were resiliency, hardiness, initiative, integrity, authenticity, will, grit, and discipline. Further, focus group and interview Soldiers were asked to identify training gaps as well.
The paragraphs that follow discuss these intangibles, along with literature review findings that further assist in prioritizing the intangibles. This prioritization is important toward the final research objective of creating field measures for a smaller set of critical and needed intangibles.
Results from the data collection indicated that hardiness was one of the most important constructs for Soldier mission readiness. As with resiliency, it was rated highest in terms of training ineffectiveness and need for new or improved training. Army doctrine has referred to hardiness and resiliency together as outcomes to training programs (Department of Army, 2017). However, some research literature suggests that perhaps hardiness is a pathway to resiliency. The majority of research in this area views hardiness as a personality trait; although, some evidence suggests hardiness can be trained. It was recommended that hardiness be selected for measurement development in the final phase of this research.
The literature review and data collection were fairly consistent in terms of the importance of initiative to Soldier mission readiness. Results from the data collection indicated that initiative was one of the most critical constructs and Army doctrine views it as an essential component of mission success. In addition, both Army doctrine and research in this area suggest manipulating the environment that a person trains in can be an effective way of developing initiative. For example, Army doctrine suggests using event-based and situational exercises that incorporate challenging, complex, ambiguous, and uncomfortable situations as a means of doing this. Thus, current training on this construct was seen as ineffective and in need of new or improved training. This disparity would suggest that current initiative training might not be meeting the expectation of those who are employing it. Thus, it was recomended that initiative be selected for measurement development.
Will was one of the least effectively trained identified constructs, while concurrently, one of the highest rated in terms of needing new or improved training. That being said, some of the Soldiers did mention a few training methods they found to be helpful in fostering will. These included field training exercises and daily PT. They also mentioned that to be effective, training needed to be challenging and difficult. As for empirical support for such methods, the literature on will has remained fairly silent. However, self-regulation, a similar construct, has shown promise. It was recommended that will be selected for measurement development.
Results from the data collection indicated that grit was also one of the most important constructs for Soldier mission readiness. Yet, as with will, it was rated high in terms of training ineffectiveness and would require new or improved training in order to develop it. Grit is often viewed as a personality trait in the literature and limited evidence has shown it to be trainable. In addition, current Army doctrine does not mention grit; nor does it discuss successful training methods for its development. Further review of the literature should examine how grit is measured and address the trainability issue. Because of the criticality, ineffectiveness of training, and expressed need for new training, grit was selected for measurement development.
In sum, a number of intangibles and their associated behavioral content deserve the attention of units for training and measurement. Analysis of the literature review in the initial phase, along with quantitative and qualitative data analysis in this phase, led to the identification of a reduced number of critical intangibles for which there is also a high need for new or improved training. Therefore, at the conclusion of this phase, the psychological intangibles recommended for measurement development were initiative, will, grit, and hardiness. This recommendation was grounded in their: criticality to Soldier mission readiness, expressed Soldier need for new training, the feasibility of measurement and training, and the importance placed on these intangibles in the literature and doctrine.
Effectively enhancing the integration of these intangibles into a unit training and assessment strategy is believed to be the best way to ensure Soldier psychological mission readiness. In order to successfully integrate those intangibles adequate measures were needed, particularly for a live training environment. Thus, in the final phase of research, multiple measures of intangibles were developed for validation.
To read the first article in this series, click here: Part I: The Concept
To read the third article in this series, click here: Part III: Intangible Measures Development and Field Test
Aude, S., N., Bryson, J., Keller-Glaze, H., Nicely, K. & Vowels, C.L. (2014b). Preparing Brigade Combat Team (BCT) Soldiers for missions readiness through research on intangible psychological constructs and their applications: Measurement and learning methods. (Technical Report 1333). Retrieved from https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a596910.pdf
Dr. Steven Aude is an experienced behavioral scientist with over twenty years of experience conducting applied research to enhance human performance. He is currently leading a comprehensive study to conceptualize Army unit culture. He was previously an Army officer, served in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) as a battalion and brigade executive officer. He was a Special Forces qualified officer and led a Special Forces A Team in 1/10th Special Forces, Germany, as well as infantry platoons at Fort Lewis, WA. Aude also taught leadership and human resources at the United States Military Academy.
Dr. Christopher Vowels is an applied experimental psychologist with over 10 years of experience working directly with operational units. He is currently a team leader with the ARI Fort Hood Research Unit located at Fort Hood, Texas. Most recently, he has been conducting research to improve unit performance measurement, particularly for live training environments. Vowels received a Ph.D. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognition and Judgment and Decision-Making from Kansas State University. While attending graduate school, he served as a Consortium Research Fellow with ARI at Fort Leavenworth conducting research on leader development and improving course instruction.
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