03 October 2014

Remember Keating: A Five-Year Retrospective, Part 2

This is the second part in a six-part series. Read Part 1. Read Part 3. Read Part 4. Read Part 5. Read Part 6.

SPC Mark Dulaney shook SGT John Francis. "You good? You alright?"

A rocket-propelled grenade had sent Francis flying and he landed on his back. "Can you get up? Asked the specialist. "I think I got some busted ribs," replied the sergeant. He did, in fact, have five of them. "Should we go to the aid station?" asked Dulaney, a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

"F--- no," said Francis. "we gotta keep fighting til this s--t’s over."

In combat, effective soldiers take the initiative, military speak for staying on the move and on offense. Military culture, in fact, privileges decisiveness, sometimes to the detriment of the organization. COP Keating was, after all, under attack because senior army leaders to long refused to seriously reconsider the decision to build an outpost in Nuristan.

But just as action supplies the necessary material for cognition, commitment supplies incoherent groups the material for organization. The ways in which individuals develop a commitment is important for understanding how they act. Further, an examination of how soldiers put into action the first statement of the Warrior Ethos reveals some of the dimensions of how they make sense of the organizing going on around them.

Karl Weick is a social psychologist who has profoundly influenced the way organizational experts are now understanding how people communicate in high-tempo and high-risk situations. Nearly all of Weick’s ideas about organizing can be traced to a set of experiments he conducted in the late 1960s, when he invited participants to conduct a complex task with the promise of monetary reward. Those participants who were deprived of their promised reward subsequently rated the task more interesting.

Thus, the experiment and his analysis reveals quite a bit about why individuals act and follow direction—in other words organize—and how they find satisfaction in that work. Weick’s experiments had a "person [make] a clear commitment to the task, a commitment whose full content was not grasped at the beginning." Thus, action became the independent variable.

Weick calls commitment a "reference point for sensemaking." Fundamental to sensemaking in organizational life is the notion that action is almost always social. Thus, acts become "interacts" between and among actors. The anecdote above was an interact between Dulaney and Francis. Commitment, then, usually invokes the social.

When soldiers say (or think) "I will always place the mission first," they are equating the mission with the team. In one respect, it absolves the individual of responsibility and makes it easier to deal with the mental and emotional load of combat.

The commitment pattern is heavily reliant on language. By looking at action as a cause, we are free to speculate that the way soldiers express their commitments might also be the result of action. Sharing and socializing commitments is enabled by organizations that focus on language . The consistency and variety with which the Army employs the Warrior Ethos makes it more likely that commitment will be shared and understood in common ways.

The most superficial reading of the Battle of COP Keating makes plain that these guys were committed to the fight.

The above was adapted from a paper I submitted in a doctoral seminar in organizational communication. The paper was titled, "More than Mere Words: Enacting the Warrior Ethos in Combat."

Quotes from the Soldiers are taken from The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor by the eminent Jake Tapper. References to enactment, sensemaking, and other social psychology ideas are mainly from the various works of Karl E. Weick. 

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