By Anne Goyne MAPS, Senior Psychologist, Australian Defence Force Academy

No occupation puts a greater premium on success than the role of military commander (CO). The right people, training and equipment are part of the formula for success, but it is the extent to which a unit operates as a cohesive team which ultimately determines good military performance. For units deployed operationally, success is generally associated with winning battles, but combat outcomes are not the only metrics of concern for COs. Success also means maintaining a good record of safety, keeping casualties to a minimum, maintaining military discipline, creating a good work environment and keeping the trust of the public at home.

The behaviour and attitude of military personnel is now as important as their combat skills. While it may seem clichéd, winning the hearts and minds of ordinary people swept up in conflicts, and maintaining a positive public image, are major factors in conflict resolution. One only has to consider the impact of incidents like the abuse of inmates at Abu Ghraib Prison to understand how such events undermine the credibility of military actions on foreign soil. COs are under increasing pressure to ensure their people are not only good warriors, but are also good international citizens.

To do this, commanders need to know about what is actually happening at the grass roots of their units. Research to investigate unit climate is designed to meet this need.

Modern unit climate research

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Australia and Canada participated in a bilateral exchange program to share the knowledge and experience of military researchers. At the time, the Canadian Army had tasked their Directorate of Human Resource Research and Evaluation (DHRRE) to develop a unit climate survey for deployed units, after the death of a Somali teenager at the hands of Canadian airborne troops in 1992 (Winslow, 1997). Successive Australian officers were closely involved in this research and over time brought this expertise back to Australia.

The Human Dimensions of Operations (HDO) project focused on combat readiness before, during and after operational deployment. After each administration of the HDO questionnaire, commanders received feedback on a range of climate factors including morale, attitudes to leadership, confidence in the mission, preparedness for war and the soldier's psychological wellbeing (Murphy & Farley, 1997). The HDO questionnaire quickly found its way into the toolkit of Australian researchers and has been in regular use in the ADF since 2002.

While the HDO questionnaire addressed unit climate during operational service, there was growing concern that units not deployed were being ignored. Consequently, in 2001, aided by Australian exchange officers, DHRRE began developing the Unit Morale Profile (UMP) (Riley, 2002). The UMP comprised a combination of industrial and purpose designed scales used to measure workplace factors known to have an impact on performance.

In its original form, the UMP was too long (345 items) to be viable in a military context, so a new streamlined version was developed and renamed the Profile of Unit Leadership, Satisfaction and Effectiveness (PULSE) (Johnston, 2004). This questionnaire was introduced to the ADF in 2004.

The PULSE

The PULSE maintained the tri-level (Individual, Group and Unit) format of the UMP, but included a new dimensional structure comprising the following core factors:

  • Job stress
  • Work motivation
  • Job satisfaction
  • Satisfaction with communication
  • Confidence in leadership
  • Teamwork/cohesion
  • Organisational support
  • Organisational commitment.

Questions on health and wellbeing, perceptions of job performance, career intentions, reported negative organisational behaviours and respondent comments rounded out the information available to the commander. Figure 1 shows the current model for the PULSE (Lake, 2009).

The main use of the PULSE is to provide feedback to commanders to help them manage their command. This feedback is provided confidentially to encourage COs to participate in the process. To start the process a CO contacts the local Psychology Support Section (PSS) who then liaise with the Psychology Research and Technology Group (PRTG). The PRTG provides the technical expertise in the administration and delivery of climate survey instruments. After the surveys are completed, ideally by all unit members, they are returned, scanned and the data analysed.

Templated reports, developed in conjunction with the University of Southern Queensland, speed the preparation of PULSE results, improving the turnaround of reports to PSS staff. An experienced psychologist then consults with the CO to discuss the results. This last step is actually the most important because it is during this discussion that commanders begin to formulate actions to address the issues raised in the PULSE.

Figure 1. The PULSE model

The PULSE report

What can commanders learn from the PULSE? Basically, PULSE data tell the story of a unit. The results reflect the pressures experienced at every level in the unit, from the most junior to senior ranks, and how these pressures affect overall unit effectiveness. For example, the PULSE can reveal how well each sub-unit communicates with each other and whether everyone is well informed about the commander's intent. Where problems are reported the CO can generally determine if this reflects a breakdown in leadership, work distribution, training or a lack of resources/equipment to get the job done.

As outlined in the boxed information, PULSE respondents often raise concerns that are outside the immediate control of the commander. However, mostly the results give the CO some idea of where to direct his or her efforts to raise overall unit morale and effectiveness.

Types of problems raised in the PULSE
  • Perceived favouritism towards one or more sub-units or groups
  • Over-punitive discipline, both from command and between ranks - treated like children
  • Unfairness in the distribution of work between groups
  • Dissatisfaction with unit administration (e.g., courses, pay, leave, etc)
  • Imbalance in pay-to-work ratio
  • Dissatisfaction with equipment/safety
  • Not being valued by the organisation - no recognition or feedback
  • Poor communication - no advance warning for exercises, etc
  • Dissatisfaction with opportunities to deploy
  • Deployment/training tempo too high - no work/life balance 

  

The future of climate research in the ADF

Asking what personnel think about a range of issues associated with military service is not new. The ADF has been collecting the attitudes and opinions of military personnel for well over 20 years. However, tools like the HDO and PULSE provide direct, anonymous feedback to the CO from every member under his or her command. This constitutes a fairly radical change in how military units operate.

The PULSE has now been administered to over 60 ADF units, including Navy patrol boats and submarines. While people tend to adopt the ‘climate' of the units they join, successive administrations of the PULSE show that units also change over time. The fact COs are in a position to actively address the concerns raised in the PULSE has kept participation rates in this type of research high in relation to other Defence surveys.

It has been suggested that the PULSE could be administered by all COs on assuming a new command, and again at the 12-month point in the posting - following the US Command Climate Survey model. However, there is little evidence in Australia that such a blanket approach is justified. Furthermore, mandatory surveys would only increase the risk of ‘survey fatigue', a problem already identified by the ADF. Consequently, the PULSE remains a very useful tool when COs want to use it rather than something they are compelled to do.

Unit climate research is still relatively new for the ADF, but the benefits for commanders and the people who work for them has been repeatedly demonstrated. As a result, climate questionnaires like the HDO and PULSE are likely to keep their place in the tool kit of ADF commanders for some time to come.

The author can be contacted at anne.goyne3@defence.gov.au.

References

Johnston, B.F. (2004). The Unit Morale Profile - a measure of organizational climate for the Canadian Forces. Unpublished presentation, DHRRE.

Lake, R. (2009). The PULSE User's Guide. PRTG Manual. Department of Defence, Canberra: Australia.

Murphy, P.J., & Farley, K.M.J. (1997). Morale, cohesion, and confidence in leadership: Unit climate dimensions for Canadian soldiers on operations. In C. McCann, & R. Pigeau (Eds), The Human in Command: Exploring the Modern Military Experience. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Riley, M.A. (2002). Measuring the human dimension of unit effectiveness - the Unit Morale Profile. Paper presented at the 38th International Applied Military Psychology Symposium, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Winslow, D. (1997). Misplaced loyalties: Military culture and the breakdown of discipline in two peace operations. In C. McCann, & R. Pigeau (Eds), The Human in Command: Exploring the Modern Military Experience. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.