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Feature Stories

NEWS | Dec. 16, 2021

People First Task Force Building More Cohesive Teams

By Michael Reinsch Army News Service

One year ago, the Army created the People First Task Force to help address harmful behaviors and build cohesion across the Army.

The Task Force was created to respond to the list of findings and recommendations within the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee report released Dec. 8, 2020. Following the committee’s report, the PFTF has spent the last year coordinating efforts and initiatives to address harmful behaviors that were outlined. They are tackling these issues with assistance from organizations and leadership internal and external to the Army – including the Department of Defense’s 90-day Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault.

In the last year, the PFTF has analyzed the findings and recommendations of the FHIRC, and has implemented approximately half of the 70 recommendations Army-wide. The team is also reevaluating current policy and programs; presenting recommendations for a redesign of the SHARP program; integrating HQDA-wide response, reform, and implementation of policy, programs and directives; and adapting Army policies, processes, and programs to build diverse, adaptive and cohesive teams.

“The programs we are reevaluating and transforming get to the heart of building cohesive teams,” said Brig. Gen. Christopher Norrie, director of PFTF. “Our Army senior leaders along with everyone on our team focuses daily efforts on strategic methods to improve the outcomes of our people through strategic prevention and response planning, evaluation of our programs structure and resources and listening to Soldiers within all Army ranks.”

In April 2020, several months after the PFTF was established, the task force launched the Cohesion Assessment Team pilot with the goal of providing units with assessments to drive the progression of the climate and culture of the Army: to build more cohesive teams.

“Soldiers just want to be heard. They want a leader to just say ‘I got you, I understand you, and I am going to support you,” said Sgt. Maj. Osvaldo Martinez, PFTF. “As leaders, we have to spend some time to get to know our people and take the opportunity to build our team. As a Task Force we are encouraging these conversations to happen at all levels.”

The Cohesion Assessment Team is an organization of individuals who are subject matter experts in a variety of fields who conduct organizational climate assessments to further build cohesive, lethal, and fit teams.

“[The CAT] informs commanders at echelon of potential blind spots that may exist within their organization,” said Col. Jennifer McDonough, Cohesion Assessment Team lead, as part of the People First Task Force. “It provides tools and best practices that we have found throughout the Army to help address elements specific to organizational climate and culture factors.”

Having subject matter experts on the team allows for them to provide more than just a cursory look at a unit. The team is able to provide an overall assessment and identify blind spots from the perspective of professionals in the area they are observing.

Commanders are responsible for hundreds if not thousands of Soldiers at once: leaders at higher levels of command might not be aware of some of the events happening at lower levels.

“As much as a commander wants to know absolutely everything and may be dedicated to knowing everything that's going on inside of their organization; there are oftentimes things happening a commander may not be aware of,” McDonough said. “This is not to say the commander did anything wrong, but it helps bring some of those things they may not see to the forefront.”

Some examples of blind spots may be how an organization communicates information with each other, feelings of exclusion by members of certain ethnicities or races, or aggressive leadership. These issues may begin at the company level but can have a big impact on the Army as a whole.

Another type of blind spot is bias.

“To be human is to have bias,” said Col. Lisa Teegarden, psychologist assigned to the PFTF with an emphasis on organizational psychology. “They're just ways of perceiving the world, and we can’t perceive it in a 360 degree, wholly accurate way.”

The team, before going to any assessment, is trained on identifying their own bias so it does not affect their feedback.

“The training focuses specifically on those biases that are most likely to impact us, the cohesion assessment team when we are working directly with the unit,” Teegarden said. “So, talking through, what does that look like? What are they? How do they show up, and then specifically, what it is that each member in the team at large can do to minimize the impact of that bias assessment?”

To ensure that CAT is addressing these issues in the most effective way possible, the team uses a method to take a critical introspective examination of the systems, policies, and programs of the unit measured by the standards of the Army as a whole.

“It is an assessment that follows an ordered, systematic, science-driven approach to look at the unique climate and culture and dynamics of that unit,” said Teegarden. “It is a comprehensive look to the extent that we objectively consider and analyze a wide array of existing Army metrics, and then we follow up with personal observations, extensive focus groups, and interviews with leaders and support personnel and enabler personnel.”

After the assessment, the CAT gathers and shares the information that was discovered with commanders. During this debrief, the team offers up tools and methods to assist that commander in reinforcing policy, practices and culture in the identified areas of interest to address issues.

“While we're on the ground, we want to be able to share tools and best practices that other units throughout the Army are using,” McDonough said. “Once we get back, we check in with them. And oftentimes, they have done an action plan, they've seen things that have improved, and then they're able to provide us those tools.”

“We're not necessarily going to go and say, ‘this is broken, and this is how you fix it.’ We're going to show them where [the problem] is, and then we're going to give them some options,” McDonough explained.

There are approximately 20 members currently part of the CAT. During each assessment, the teams break down into their perspective subject matter areas and perform their assessment.

Individual units are identified for the visits using a multi-measure approach based on weighted data scores from the composite risk reduction toolkit.

Even though the CAT is present for only 10 days, they believe they’re making a difference at these units.

“The program has continued to grow and get better,” McDonough said. “We're able to provide commanders at echelon with tangible, actionable things within their formation, that not only help their organizations and their organizational climate but help the Army overall.”

The onsite assessment done by the CAT is not meant to be an inspection or an investigation but rather a tool to provide commanders with insights on their formation from a different perspective so they might better mitigate risks to trust and cohesion and make existing programs more effective.

“Before I went on my first trip with the CAT, I was a little concerned about being an external observer and how that would be received within a unit,” Lt. Col. Matthew Shaw, leader development team chief for the cohesion assessment team said. “You know, nobody wants to be inspected, and I didn't want to provide the perception that we were there to play a gotcha game, because that's not at all what we do.”

“At the end of that trip and seeing the reaction from the leaders within the unit, I absolutely felt that we were making a difference for the unit and for the Army,” he added.

At the end of each assessment, the end goal of the CAT is to support leaders in assessing their organizational climate and provide actionable recommendations to support the leadership in a positive transformation of their climate.

“We are able to give a picture to a command team that they really aren't able to get in very many other ways,” said Shaw. “We're not conducting a formal inspection. We're just talking to a wide variety of folks throughout the organization. And at the end of that, bringing all of that back to the command team and showing them a picture of their unit, which may or may not match what they already know. And in most cases, we're able to provide them with a viewpoint that allows them to improve their organization in a way that addresses the culture and the climate, and ultimately make soldiers better able to do their jobs for the Army.”

So far, the CAT has completed cohesion assessments at five locations with six more planned in the next year. The CAT pilot is just one of several initiatives being tested to improve how the Army builds cohesion and addresses harmful behaviors. Over the next year, the PFTF will continue to focus on SHARP, crime prevention, Soldier care, and continued implementation of FHIRC recommendations.

“We are learning about gaps in our care of Soldiers and people directly from the source so that we can address concerns in a holistic way,” said Norrie. “We are hopeful about the progress of this pilot as a tool that can be replicated and deployed across our formations to get accurate assessments of programmatic successes and shortcomings in combating harmful behavior. Analysis of a formation's operations with regards to trust and cohesion, leader development programs, training awards, legal actions and Soldier separation programs has already been invaluable to our efforts as a Task Force.”