Keys to Strengthening Buy-in, Trust and Team Coordination in a Generationally-Culturally Diverse (Military) Workforce
I'm preparing for a major offsite event with the Command Teams of the 1st Cavalry/Ft. Hood, TX. I've been asked to explore new (for me) conceptual territory -- Generational Diversity. More specifically, the Army wants me to provide some fresh ideas and exercises for "Communicating with the Younger Soldier." To oversimplify matters: how can the predominant generations in authority -- the Traditionals and Boomers -- connect with GenXers and Millennials. And in today's 24/7 always on world, rapidly cycling between constant upgrading and "doing more with less," creating communication and team coordination bridges among the military (and civilian) generations -- and among all its culturally diverse components -- is mission and morale critical.

As a Brigade Commander once shared, "It's easy to get someone to follow orders; it's challenging to create real buy-in."Here are "Top Ten Tools and Strategies for Strengthening Buy-in, Trust and Team Coordination among a Generationally-Culturally Diverse Workforce," military and otherwise:

1. Ask Good Questions and Patiently Listen to Reduce Status Differences and Foster Respect. In organizations with large numbers and complex operations clearly there's a need for a chain of command and lines of authority. However, increasingly, in today's volunteer army where many of the younger generation of Soldiers want if not expect to be seen and heard, achieving "buy-in" requires some opportunity for genuine give and take among the differing ranks. One channel to help (all) Soldiers build upon the respect for the uniform is through open and meaningful "Helmets Off" exchanges with their leaders. Allowing Soldiers to genuinely dialogue with, share ideas and even question their individual Officers or Sergeants (as much as realistically feasible) allows the authority figure to become a head and heart, flesh and blood person. This is vital as increasingly the younger generation is loyal to an individual leader at least as much as to the institution.

While the younger generation often wants to be seen and heard as responsible, contributing adults, it's important to recognize the implications of their youth and levels of experience. As friend and colleague, Lawrence Phelps, Commander, 15th Sustainment Brigade, Ft. Hood, TX, observed in response to my query, "Younger Soldiers are...well...young people. Regardless of their generation (X, Y, Z, or other), it's just fundamental to remember that they are (first and foremost) kids whose impressions of the world are flavored by their interaction with us, the older leadership. They are impressionable. What leaders do in moderation, young subordinates do in excess. You can't say one thing and do another with them. If you expect them to work hard and give it their have to work hard and give it your all.The days of "do as I say, not as I do" died long ago. They are astute members of the interconnected world community, but they are still kids. My #1 thought when dealing with a junior Soldier is that I owe them the same patience and explanations I owe my teenagers at home. And it all works out just fine when you do so!" (While his choice of the word "kids" may be provocative for some, the substance of the Commander's generational interest, concern and respect is clear. And, of course, some Soldiers act like "kids" no matter what their age!)

So here's one powerful communication tool for facilitating a patient and palpable "give and take" connection: "Ask a Good Question"! There are two pillars to a "good question": humility -- "I don't have all the answers" and b) interest and concern -- "I really would like to better understand/learn from your perspective." Engaging with people in this manner over time helps break down status differences that often impede open and honest sharing.(Of course, acknowledgement does not necessarily mean agreement. Most people don't expect you to immediately agree with their viewpoint; however, we all want to feel our perspective has been considered.) When a junior party feels a senior leader wants "to get real," to hear his or her ideas or points of view, it affirms the former's sense of purpose, efficacy and self-esteem. Now the Soldier is truly part of the bigger team picture. Remember, when "respect" is defined as a real desire to understand another's lived (emotional) experience and world view (ARDictionary), it's clear that "asking good questions" paradoxically both takes down communication status barriers while building up the realms of relationship and respect.

In summary, along with leading by example, that is, the leader as role model, open and meaningful leader-soldier exchange infused with patient listening and acknowledgement reinforces a sense of "R & R" -- showing Respect and building Relationships. And it is this trust-building process that contributes to buy-in and, when required, a soldier truly coordinating with and following one voice/one vision.

2. Hold Group "Shout Outs." Each month, one Brigade Commander passes out 3 x 5 index cards to his soldiers, asking them to address and critique key operational issues. The inaugural "Shout Out" question: "What's one thing in the brigade you would change?" Collecting and studying the written and verbal data with his Command Team, in timely fashion he would publicize the changes made. The upshot is that Soldiers believe the Commander not only "listens to me" but even acts on my concerns/suggestions. And remember, especially in a rapidly changing work world, oftentimes those in the trenches really have the most immediate and relevant problem-solving information and ideas. You often generate more potent problem-solving possibilities when tradition and experience is field tested with an immediate, ground zero perspective.

3. Create Climate of Communication without Reprisal. The first two points help to create an open and safe communication climate or as one Brigade Commander called it: "the conditions for the free, uninhibited work (regardless of rank) that we see how the differing sections and commands worked together." In addition to good questions and patient listening, consider these three keys for creating a safe communication climate:

a) when possible, view mistakes less as a sign of failure, incompetence or lack of commitment and more as a learning curve experience; logically and psychologically engaging with errors provides an opportunity to expand one's knowledge and skill base and perhaps be less ego-driven or, at least, gain some humility. Knowingly laughing at our own flaws and foibles not only may reflect self-confidence but is often seen as being genuine if not courageous, and strengthens the bridge between leaders and partners,

b) leaders need to be role models and acknowledge mistakes quickly or, at least, in a timely manner; announce and follow through on correction steps and uncover what would be an acceptable apology to the ignored, slighted or injured party, and

c) when possible, discuss those issues which seemingly "can't be discussed"; people will respect your courage and determination for tackling tough issues; this level of candor also helps build mutual trust as the relevant parties appreciate your belief in their ability to face and engage with the so-called "sacred cows" or "untouchables".

4. Build-in Leadership-Partnership Tools. In small team meetings (approximately twelve people or less), consider these three steps for building that leadership-partnership connection:

a) Leader Wears Two Hats -- the leader is a participant observer, first wearing a team member hat in addition to his or her authority hat. While some leaders are cautious, many are quite ready to encourage their supervisees to accept more individual and team responsibility with task and relationship issues. When it comes to running meetings, some folks prefer having the traditional leadership arrangement. Sometimes the challenge is convincing team members to accept a leader playing two roles, i.e., being a formal member and team peer.

b) Rotate Peer Facilitators -- Soldiers facilitate the team meeting on a rotational basis, e.g., every two months there's a new peer facilitator. Peer facilitation enhances a sense of commitment and responsibility, and there's greater opportunity to practice leadership skills and discover natural leaders. Not having to run the show, there's now a venue for the formal leader to survey both verbal and nonverbal communication as well as to better read and work with group process dynamics, and

c) "Wavelength Segment" -- build in a 10-15 minute "Wavelength Segment" at the end of regular team meetings for team coordination check-in, that is, to explore "how are we working as a team?," what are the bumps, strengths, etc.? You want to create a safe space for airing concerns, affirming accomplishments and, in general, for more intimate sharing as well as more open-ended and creative problem-solving.

5. Sometimes Buy-in Begins in the Rear. Wise Commanders realize that the "down home" state of family members affects the concentration and focus of the Soldiers "down range." (And the inverse obviously applies.) The connection between leaders and spouses/family members also affects how Soldiers view their leadership: Does the leadership see the individual Soldier as part of a family unit? Does the leadership really walk the talk when it promotes Soldiers and family members as comprising "one military" team? The key to a vital down range-down home partnership/coordinated system that strengthens the resilience of soldiers and families is through effective communication and building working relationships. Consider these steps:

a) provide a regular flow of usable information to families in the Rear Detachment through a command newsletter or unit website as well as an appropriate text messaging system or, for example, a Mid-Tour Pulse Check live video feed. (Clearly, a soldier and spouse also must negotiate what information needs to be shared between the two and what information is better left unsaid; sometimes too much information can cause needless uncertainty and worry), and

b) leaders need to work with the Family Readiness Group (FRG), especially for family events, getting important messages out to all spouses, and, in general, providing individual, family and community support, etc. An effective FRG helps build that military and family life system and helps spouses adapt to significant and stressful transitions. For example, in the Fall 2006, the Iraq War was in a particularly difficult and dangerous phase, and anxiety on the home front was high. Spurred by an officer's wife (Laurie, see below) and then in conjunction with the FRG, I was brought to Ft. Hood to lead a rear detachment "Stress, Humor and Community Building" Predeployment Program. One hundred and fifty spouses showed up, along with the Rear Detachment Commander and a handful of Soldiers. As a once skeptical Commander acknowledged:

Great presentation this week. We needed that. Laurie* was so right in bringing you down. Looking forward to hearing from you.

COL Larry Phelps
Commander, 1CD Rear

And notice that the Commander's tagline reflects the interdependent, one army-family life team and systems concept:

Every Day...Better

"Managing Everything in the Rear, so that 1CD Can Focus Forward."

* Laurie's comment:@ "Once again, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. The Stress Doc presentation was everything I had hoped it would be."

Closing Summary

Part I of this two-part series has delineated five of the "Top Ten Tools and Strategies for Strengthening Buy-in, Trust and Team Coordination among a Generationally-Culturally Diverse Workforce," including building communication bridges and fostering a team/systems concept among military components, such as Officers and Soldiers as well as between Soldiers and military families and within the Rear Detachment community. The first five "Tools and Strategies" are:

1. Ask Good Questions and Patiently Listen to Reduce Status Differences and Foster Respect
2. Hold Group "Shout Outs"
3. Create Climate of Communication without Reprisal
4. Build-in Leadership-Partnership Tools
5. Sometimes Buy-in Begins in the Rear