A diverse and inclusive approach is a must in adapting to current and future security challenges and includes a broad ecosystem of stakeholders with different cultural, technical, racial, gender and social backgrounds across the civil-military spectrum. Yet asking a long ingrained and homogeneous military culture to change and embrace diversity in its broadest sense is an ambitious and complex endeavour. Late 2017, I attended one of NATO’s largest military transformation conference organized by Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, with flag officers from over 50 countries, civilians and a handful of women, including myself.

I love speaking my mind and providing my perspectives, even in a room full of stars — and there were many! When I mentioned the importance of looking at diversity in its broadest sense and how this benefits military effectiveness, some eyes were rolling as I tried to make my case. But to my pleasant surprise, many in the room acknowledged the need and it sparked an interesting and great debate. Several nations shared how they are already integrating diversity efforts in their own nation. Especially highlighting the importance of training both current and future military leaders on how to embrace this cultural transformation.

What struck me most during these discussions is how negative bias and narrow understanding of diversity is affecting opinions and behaviors. If you want to read more in depth about diversity related biases, the NeuroLeadership Institute offers an excellent place to start. I am convinced that reducing unconscious bias related to diversity through self-awareness strategies facilitated by skilled facilitators will enhance human interoperability (working with people from different countries, different backgrounds and different skillsets), and will have a direct and positive correlation with military effectiveness. An effectiveness that is critical in an era where traditional warfare in the 21st Century is no longer sufficient. And where embracing new ways of working in military operations is a necessity.

‘’Whether in business or in war, the ability to react quickly and adapt is critical, and it’s becoming even more so as technology and disruptive forces increase the pace of change. That requires new ways to communicate and work together. In today’s world, creativity is a collaboration endeavour. Innovation is a team effort ‘’ .

Teams of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World — General Stanley McChrystal, 2015

Why diversity matters for the military workforce

It is no secret that diverse teams are better in solving complex problems with innovative solutions. And effective and inclusive solutions in this digital era are not a luxury, but a necessity. This white paper on Inclusion and Diversity = Better Decision Making shows that the most diverse teams make better decisions 87% of the time. The military as an institution is not the private sector, but the principles of human decision making remain the same. At the same time, research also shows that diverse teams create a sense of discomfort as people are inclined to work with those who are similar to them because it is easier, creates less tension and challenges. The same white paper shows that friction increases with 15% in more diverse teams, but results boosts by 60%.

The danger lies in becoming more comfortable with developing good-enough solutions, even if we are aware that discomfort and constructive tension provide better results. Only by seeking perfection will we stay ahead and prepared for what is already manifesting at a fast pace across a 360-degree security landscape. A landscape where military effectiveness is more important than ever, but no longer in the traditional sense as we remember during the Cold War (not me personally, but most of the current generation that is working in the defence & security sector).

Take counter-terrorism for example. Fighting transnational illicit extremist groups in dense populated environments — urban warfare. RAND published an article last year, which describes how in places like Russia’s Grozny and Iraq’s Sadr City, countering violent non-state actors in dense urban environments can prove enormously difficult even for highly capable military forces. What is often underestimated is how well terrorist groups like ISIS have effectively adopted diversity in its broadest sense. Their use of both existing and emerging technology and social media strategy in disrupting military operations both in urban environments and on Western home soil is of great concern to say the least.

Truly understanding how they operate at their core will require increased efforts from the military side to include a broad range of stakeholders beyond the traditional ones. Intelligence gathering to create real-time situational awareness during operations in dense populated environments will require specific technology solutions and collaboration with both traditional and non-traditional actors across the military spectrum and intelligence community. Perhaps there are several efforts underway, but the need to promote a change of mindset and adopt diversity in its broadest sense for military effectiveness is increasing in importance.

Self-awareness strategies to mitigate unconscious bias

Conscious decision-making takes up a surprising amount of energy and can only last during a short timeframe because we use our prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is the hub for rational decision-making (Read More). As this is not sustainable for daily decisions, the brain creates mental shortcuts to navigate through every-day reality. These mental shortcuts can also be seen as unconscious bias that people develop based on their own assumptions, mental models and experiences. Only by training the brain through self-awareness strategies, rational decision making based on new information and experiences gets transformed into a mental shortcut.

You are probably wondering how this relates to embracing diversity to enhance military effectiveness?

Well, in crises or wartime our brains are under high-level of stress and decision-making is primarily based on what we know — our mental shortcuts. And if our mental shortcuts are biased when it comes to working with people that are different than us, if we experience high-level of discomfort because we are not used to this new way of working; there are likely to be many “good-enough” solutions and decisions in times of crises. But if we include self-awareness training during NATO and national exercises by bringing skilled facilitators into the field, decision-making based on unconscious bias can be mitigated and replaced by new information and experiences stored in the PFC. And as decision-making is included into exercises during peace-time establishment, high-stress levels during crisis is likely to have limited impact as this new way of working has become part of re-programmed mental short-cuts.

Why bring skilled professionals into exercises you may wonder? If we only use unconscious bias-related training related to diversity in static educational environments, its impact maybe limited. Most people, especially authoritarian personalities and those used to work in homogeneous environments don’t like to be told how and what to think; in particular when it comes to changing their own habits and mental models to do things differently. However, people are more likely to change behaviors if self-awareness training is integrated as part of the exercise program illustrating the direct positive correlation between diversity and military effectiveness during live demonstrations. As explained by General Chrystal’s remarkable book Teams of Teams; what creates highly effective teams with different backgrounds to work together is the sense of purpose, shared vision and common goals. And no one can argue, at least from my 17 years of experience working in NATO, that mission objective and teamwork is not held to the highest standard in the military.

Let’s start by bringing down barriers, and adopt “One Team, One Mission” in its broadest sense to ensure we aim for perfection when protecting 1Billion citizen across the Alliance and help make the security workforce a thriving place in the 21st Century!

Are you an organization struggling to navigate the challenges of civil-military collaboration for your industry? Schedule your Discovery Session with Nadja and find out how we can help you leverage the untapped potential of a diverse workforce in the defence and security sector!


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