Dr Bev Smallwood

Articles Library: Team Effectiveness

Teamwork Under Fire: Lessons From the Front Lines

I’m in full support of our troops in the Iraqi conflict, but I admit I’ve begun to experience a little “battle fatigue” with the moment-by-moment, though skillful and courageous, media coverage.

Last Thursday morning, March 27, was a notable exception. I sat glued to the news conference held by three wounded soldiers – Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Menard, Army Staff Sergeant James Villafane, and Army Sergeant Charles Horgan. Menard recounted to journalists their experiences of coming under fire from Iraqi troops in civilian dress at the city of Nassiriya, where some of the fiercest fighting to date had occurred. Villafane and Horgan told about being struck by an incoming missile.

As I watched, I, too, was struck…by the similarities between their experiences on the battlefield and those of stressed-out teams in pressure-cooker organizations today. Listen in with me to glean some valuable lessons about working together effectively “under fire.”

Lesson 1: Don't Be Caught Off-guard; Prepare Realistically For Problems

Menard told the members of the press, “We were very surprised. We were told that when we were going through Nassiriya that we would see little to no resistance. We were more prepared for what happened in the Gulf War when they turned over and surrendered most of the time. They weren’t rolling over like we thought they would.”

If you think that creating an organization full of teams is the magic and easy answer, think again. Some of my most successful and gratifying work has been with organizations around the world that want to create high-performing teams. Yet, the failure to realistically anticipate and prepare for the inevitable resistance and emotional disruption that occurs when even good change is introduced can sabotage success long before it is realized.

Problems will come, and real solutions don’t occur overnight. Be realistic and “prepare for the worst,” while generating the enthusiasm and action that creates the best.

Lesson 2: Know That Your Good Intentions Can Be Misunderstood

Villafane commented, “The amount of resistance, some of it I don’t understand. I mean, we’re there to help them to get them out of the regime.” Later he added, “It was a shock that they would actually do that, given the treatment we try to give them. We try to treat them fairly. I guess they have to do whatever they have to.”

Know this! You can have the best of intentions, trying to do what you really believe is best for your team members and the organization, yet be very misunderstood.

This is especially true if you are in a leadership position. Sometimes the right decisions are not popular decisions.

What should you do when this happens?

First, remember this painfully true adage: We tend to judge others by their actions, while we judge ourselves by our intentions. Others are looking at your actions. Face the fact that your own actions may not appear consistent with your good intentions.

Do your best to clarify and create understanding by two-way communications. Be willing to hear from your team members their answers to this critical question: “What’s it like to be on the other side of me?”

Lesson 3: Don't Make Mistakes About Who Your Enemy Is

A group of Iraqis dressed in the civilian robes of nomad Bedoins opened fire on Menard as he and six other Marines approached them on a bridge in Nassiriya. Villafane said that his battalion had been briefed that Iraqi soldiers might disguise themselves in civilian clothes, but he was still surprised when it happened.

Are there people within our own organizations who are out to get us, essentially Iraqis in civilian clothing? Unfortunately, sometimes the answer is yes.

We were all appalled to hear that a soldier allegedly threw the grenade that killed and injured people in his own troop. Yet, sad to say, this does happen in our workplaces. Power struggles and bitter resentments drain energy, sabotage productivity, and destroy service every day in organizations.

Members of our teams must become clear that we are on the same side, facing TOGETHER our mutual enemies of the poor quality and service that sends our customers to the competition.

Make no mistake about it. The failure to correctly identify our REAL enemies threatens the survival of our companies and our own livelihoods.

Lesson 4: Don't Panic When Troubles Come

Sergeant Horgan told about how he worked to stay calm, though he had just been wounded by the enemy missile. He said that he was grateful that “training kicks in” and that he was able not to panic. He said that he told himself, “My foot may be gone, but I gotta move.”

When you are faced with an unexpected and distressing challenge, don’t panic. Don’t impulsively react and say or do things you will later regret.

Stop…think…plan…then act.

Lesson 5: Protect Your Team Members, Not Just Yourself

The way these well-trained, courageous soldiers behaved under fire is, to me, the greatest of our lessons in teamwork. Research clearly affirms that loyalty to the team improves attendance, enhances productivity, and increases retention. Listen to the soldiers’ descriptions of their thoughts and actions, allowing them to stimulate your OWN thoughts and provoke self-examination about your attitudes as a team member.

Horgan, whose right leg and foot were ripped open when he was blown from his gunning position, described seeing an incoming missile and barely having time to warn his colleagues before it struck. When he saw the missile, he thought, “Oh, my God, I’m gonna die. I gotta warn my buddies.” He added, “This is the advantage we have over the Iraqis.”

The three wounded men all said they felt a sense of guilt about leaving friends behind in Iraq. They felt this, despite the unbelievable trauma they had just experienced. As Villafane put it, “It’s not being shot at that's so bad. It’s being shot that really sucks!” (Can you relate to that?)

Horgan told reporters, “I’m relieved that I’m out of that sort of thing. Nobody can be shot and say, ‘Wow, I really want to go back out there. That was great.’ But I’m kind of sad that I’m not with the guys who protected me. My friends protected me when I needed them.”

Horgan summed it up: “I joined to serve my country. But when I was there, I was fighting to protect my friends.”

Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist and professional speaker who is the author of “This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen to Me.” Visit her website, www.DrBevSmallwood.com; or contact Bev at 601.264.0890 or by email, Bev@DrBevSmallwood.com. Also connect with Bev on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and her blogs, Shrink Rap and New Morning Devotionals.

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