The Psychological Intangibles of Soldier Readiness
Part I: The Concept
By Dr. Christopher Vowels
U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences
Dr. Steven Aude
November 22, 2019
* All three articles are located in the PDF below
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The U.S. Army has traditionally excelled at preparing its Soldiers, tactically and technically, for the rigors of combat. Yet the trend in contemporary warfare demands that attention and importance also be paid to the human dimension, as well as the tactical, in order to best prepare for the future fight.
Recent doctrine continues to emphasize the need to maximize human potential and to understand the human factors/elements for multi-domain operations (Department of the Army, 2018). These articles describe research conducted to help define the requisite Soldier attributes needed for sustained mission performance during combat operations.
The U.S. Army's ADP 6-0: Mission Command describes war as the following:
War is a human endeavor—a clash of wills characterized by the threat or application of force and violence, often fought among populations. It is not a mechanical process that can be precisely controlled by machines, calculations, or processes. Nor is it conducted in carefully controlled and predictable environments. Fundamentally, all war is about changing human behavior. It is both a contest of wills and a contest of intellect between two or more sides in conflict, with each trying to alter the behavior of the other side. (Department of the Army, 2019, p. 1-1)
For the purposes of conducting the research, the authors used the adjective intangible to describe psychological concepts that contribute to Soldier mission readiness across the human dimension. Intangible psychological concepts include adaptability, self-awareness, sense-making, warrior ethos, confidence, resilience, moral ethical judgment, among others.
A number of programs have already been developed to train and enhance performance in the psychological intangibles realm. Action has also been taken at the Combat Training Centers and home station training environment to better integrate aspects of the human dimension into existing tactical training exercises.
Noncommissioned officers (NCOs) in brigade combat teams (BCT) are presented with a myriad of programs and ideas about how to best train their Soldiers for the rigors of contemporary warfare's human dimension. Given limited time, and a large number of individual and collective tactical and technical training tasks to accomplish, NCOs could benefit from a research-based prioritization and implementation plan for efficient and effective training on intangible concepts. The purpose of this article, then, is to provide an abbreviated version of Army Research Institute's (ARI) research on intangible psychological concepts that have an impact on Soldier readiness.
Across three phases of research, ARI first identified a number of concepts from the scientific literature. Soldiers were then asked to identify and prioritize intangible psychological concepts and their contribution to readiness. Effective training methods were also identified for a select few high priority concepts. Lastly, measures were developed and field-tested with actual Soldiers performing demanding mission-related tasks.
This first of three articles provides NCOs with a primer on important psychological intangible concepts found in the scientific literature. It is a summarized excerpt of a longer ARI technical report (Aude, Bryson, Keller-Glaze, Nicely, & Vowels, 2014a).
Hardiness was originally defined as “a personality attribute that reflects the courage and motivation to cope effectively with the stressors of daily life” (Vogt, Rizvi, Shipherd, & Resick, 2008, p. 61). However, modern research in this area suggests hardiness is more "accustomed to dealing with fatigue or hardships" ("Hardy," n.d., para. 3). As such, much of the research to date focuses on hardiness as an innate or stable concept and its relationship to various outcomes such as stressors, strains, social support, coping, and performance (Bartone, 1999; Bartone, Roland, Picano, & Williams, 2008; Dolan, & Adler, 2006; Eschleman & Bowling, 2010; Maddi, Matthews, Kelly, Resurreccion, & Villarreal, 2010).
New research suggests that hardiness can be developed by, and for, certain situations (Mosley & Laborde, 2016; Bartone, 2006; Bartone, Barry, & Armstrong, 2009; Maddi, 2007). In line with this new way of thinking, Maddi et al., (2010) defines hardiness as “a specific set of attitudes and skills that provide the courage, motivation, and strategies leading to resilience and growth in stressful circumstances” (p. 566).
Two studies lend support that hardiness can be developed or fostered (Maddi, Harvey, Khoshaba, Fazel, & Resurreccion, 2009; Zach, Raviv, & Inbar, 2007). Zach et al. (2007) looked at the effect of a gradual training program on 71 Israeli military officers in terms of physical performance during stressful situations. As part of this research, participants were measured on hardiness at the beginning (under normal conditions) and end of training (under stressful conditions). Results showed an improvement in hardiness after participants had taken the training.
In 2009, Maddi et al. looked at the effect of a hardiness training course on the level of hardiness in college students. Results showed an increase in hardiness after taking the class (Maddi et al., 2009). These two studies suggest that hardiness might be improved with proper training. Yet the unique and relatively small sample sizes used in each study (Israeli military officers and college students) points to a need for additional research to confirm and generalize these preliminary findings.
Grit is a concept that has only recently gained widespread attention and is defined by Merriam-Webster as an “unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger” ("Grit," n.d. para. 1). Grit entails working strenuously in the face of challenges, and maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon, with his or her advantage being stamina. Rather than stubbornness, Dr. Angela Duckworth states that grit is about having a long term goal that sustains a person’s interest over time (2007). “;Disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course” (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007, p. 1087).
In 2007, Dr. Duckworth et al., (2007) formalized the concept of grit and developed a new measure called the grit scale. As part of their validation process, they tested the measure in several different areas. In these studies, they found the following:
- Grit predicts an adults' level of education.
- A person's level of grit appears to increase with age.
- Grit predicts freshman cadet retention during the first year of summer training at the U.S. Military Academy.
The literature typically approaches grit-like attributes as a trait-based concept. However, Angela Duckworth, one of the leading researchers on grit, suggests that qualities of grit may in fact be teachable (Packard, 2007).
Research on grit shows promise for its relationship to educational achievement and persistence to complete demanding training regimes. In 2009, Duckworth and Quinn created and validated a shorter version of the original grit scale (Duckworth & Quinn, 2009). Results from the shortened scale were comparable to the original scale. ARI used the Duckworth et al. (2007) grit scale as part of a research effort that explored the extent to which perseverance contributed to a Soldier completing the Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) process and being selected for Special Forces (SF) training (Beal, 2010).
Beal (2010) found a positive, albeit weak, relationship between perseverance and SFAS completion. As such, it was recommended that the grit scale not be used on its own, but in conjunction with other measures to inform and support recruiting and selection decisions (Beal, 2010).
Merriam-Webster defines self-confidence as “confidence in oneself and in one's powers and abilities” ("Self-confidence," n.d., para. 1). FM 6-22: Leader Development, discusses some of the important behavioral outcomes associated with confidence. For instance, “Generally, getting to know subordinates communicates a genuine interest in them as individuals. This builds confidence and generates trust” (Department of the Army, 2015b, p. 3-6). Confident leaders are needed at all echelons and for all situations. Further, “How Army leaders approach and persevere through difficult times sets a leadership example for others while demonstrating commitment to the organization” (Department of the Army, 2015b, p. 7-19).
FM 6-22 also emphasizes the importance of confidence in adverse situations along with indicators associated with such confidence, or a lack of, and an approach to foster its development (Department of the Army, 2015b, p. 7-20).
Kipnis and Lane (1962) examined the relationship between a lack of self-confidence and passive leadership techniques using a sample of 77 Navy petty officers. Results indicated that participants who lacked self-confidence were significantly less willing to hold face-to-face discussions with subordinates and significantly more likely to refer the subordinate to a superior. These same participants tended to rely upon the use of administrative rules to solve supervisory problems (Kipnis & Lane, 1962).
These findings provide evidence that the psychological concept of self-confidence, in this case a lack of self-confidence, is related to tangible leadership behavior. Further, the findings would seem to support the assertions made in FM 6-22 concerning the link between self-confidence and leader presence. Specifically, leaders lacking in self-confidence are more likely to employ passive leadership techniques, influencing others’ interpretation of their leader presence (Department of the Army, 2006).
The importance of developing leaders with confidence is important at all levels, “Leaders develop the confidence, leadership, and the competence needed for more complex and higher-level assignments through education, training, and experience gained throughout a career” (Department of the Army, 2015b, p. 1-7). Training and practice under conditions that replicate combat (i.e. realistic training) are no doubt helpful to building self-confidence. And both self-confidence and confidence (the research does not readily distinguish between the two) have been shown to predict training outcomes (Warr, Allan, & Birdi, 1999).
The Army defines initiative as “the willingness to act in the absence of orders, when existing orders no longer fit the situation, or when unforeseen opportunities or threats arise” (Department of the Army, 2017, p. 4-5). FM 3-0: Operations (2017) identifies individual initiative as a crucial component in seizing, retaining, and exploiting opportunities during Army operations. It also suggests that high quality Army Soldiers can best reach their potential by being given opportunities to exercise initiative. The Army’s FM 7-0: Train to Win in a Complex World (2016) directs leaders to train their subordinates without stifling their initiative, and to use their own initiative when developing training. FM 6-22 supports this notion by fostering a culture that allows subordinates to, “…take reasonable risks, grow, and develop their own initiative” (Department of the Army, 2015b, p. 3-2).
Both Army doctrine and current research discuss the importance of an environment that is conducive to encouraging initiative. The Army’s current training doctrine , such as ADP 6-0: Mission Command, encourages leaders to develop initiative through a climate of trust and mutual understanding and to foster initiative in their subordinates (Department of the Army, 2019). Doctrine recommends training that consists of challenging, complex, ambiguous, and uncomfortable situations where Soldiers are allowed to think through and react to unexpected and difficult situations, and where initiative is rewarded and honest mistakes are allowed (Department of the Army, 2019).
Initiative research, while primarily focused on the business sector, generally supports the Army’s emphasis on a supportive climate. Fay and Frese (2001) conducted a series of studies where they examined different relationships between personal initiative and other relevant concepts. One such area of exploration is the relationship between personal initiative and a responsive environment consisting of control at work, complexity at work, stressors, and support for personal initiative (direct supervisors, top management). Hierarchical regressions demonstrated positive trends for these relationships except for the direct supervisor, which did not affect personal initiative (Fay & Frese, 2001). The implication is that the work environment and senior management have an important role in fostering initiative in individuals.
A United States Army Command and General Staff College research report on initiative-oriented training also provided support for the Army’s method of developing personal initiative (Larsen, 1998). Results show that using mission orders during situational training exercises (STXs), changing conditions between iterations, providing an aggressive opposing force with increased latitude, and Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES) free-play exercises were positively correlated with a Soldier’s disciplined initiative. Disciplined initiative was defined as initiative demonstrated in accordance with the commander’s intent (Larsen, 1998). In theory then, repetition of these variables (e.g., mission orders during STXs) in training would increase Soldier initiative because such orders direct Soldiers towards the tasks needed to be accomplished, but not how to accomplish them.
Will was previously defined in doctrine as the “inner drive that compels [Soldiers] to keep going, even when exhausted, hungry, afraid, cold, and wet” (Department of the Army, 2006, p. 5-3). Will is an integral, though indirect, component of the Soldier skill set. While no longer literally named as a key attribute in the Army’s leadership requirements model, will continues to be cited and referred to as important (Department of the Army, 2015b).
Doctrine endorses the idea that commitment to beliefs such as warrior ethos, Army values, justice, liberty, freedom and motivation are helpful in developing a Soldier's will. It also suggests that leaders give subordinates complex tasks to gradually develop the will necessary to take on more difficult tasks (Department of the Army, 2019).
The concept of self-regulation possesses a convergence with the definition of will. Self-regulation is defined as the “capacity to enact control over one’s behavior” (Oaten & Cheng, 2006b, p. 717). One study took a group of 69 college students and had them each do one of three different self-control exercises over a two-week period. The simple exercises included monitoring and improving posture, regulating mood, and monitoring and recording eating.
Results showed an increase in participant self-regulatory capacity after doing the self-control exercises (Muraven, Baumeister, & Tice, 1999).
Other studies looked at the effects of interventions such as study and exercise programs on self-regulatory capacity. Results showed an increase in participants' self-regulatory capacity on a self-regulation exercise, and in other areas of their lives such as improved dietary habits, decreased stress levels, decreased chemical consumption, and increased emotional control (Oaten & Cheng, 2006a; Oaten & Cheng, 2006b). However, some of the research indicates that the amount of self-regulation a person has is limited and can be depleted. This characteristic of self-regulation is, perhaps, similar to or linked to a person’s capacity for will. Research recommendations include providing ways of strengthening self-regulation through practice as well as restoring depleted self-regulation through sleep (Baumeister, 2003) or even laughter (Tice, Baumeister, Shmueli, & Muraven, 2007). If self-regulation improves the expression of will, then Soldiers and leaders need to be trained on being cognizant of when it is depleted and how to restore it.
The word intangible aptly captures the nature of the psychological concepts in the literature. The boundaries of the concepts are, at times, difficult to uniquely define, with the content of one sometimes overlapping another. Nevertheless, valid measures do exist for a number of the concepts, and research that sought to train or develop individual skill or ability associated with the concept sometimes resulted in demonstrated improvements in performance.
The literature review from the present research, however, also identified key challenges to the integration and implementation of training on intangible concepts. For one, the scientific evidence for some concepts is extensive, while for others it is considerably less. Additionally, most concept measures are not designed for use in an Army field environment (e.g., via brief observational checklists, etc). Rather, the measures are lengthy tests or surveys that would require some adaptation before they could be used by unit leaders and training support personnel.
Also much of the cited training for intangible or psychological concepts is in the form of instructor-led training that is designed for a classroom environment. Yet much of Army training is conducted in a field environment where units practice missions under as close to live or real conditions as can be replicated. That is not to say that classroom sessions do not have their place in unit mission preparatory training, only that a considerable investment is needed in skilled facilitators and application-oriented learning to ensure classroom instruction transfers to the field environment.
To read the second article in this series, click here: Part II: Concept Criticality and Training
To read the third article in this series, click here: Part III: Intangible Measures Development and Field Test
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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.
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.
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