Sunday 10 July 2011

Initiation ceremonies - how to welcome new recruits

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

Joining a new organisation (company, team, club) can be exciting and alarming at the same time. Some organisations make great efforts to welcome new members with introductions, mentoring, briefings and feedback forms. The Royal Marines take - or took - a rather different approach...

If you are responsible for helping people adjust, or if you are joining an unfamiliar organisation, you've probably given some thought to what creates a sense of belonging. Once new members feel at home in a team they are likely to adopt group values, bond with teammates and work more productively together.

Theorists often suggest that team formation follows a forming, storming, norming, performing sequence, and leaders usually try to usher teams through these stages as rapidly as possible - to get team members comfortable together and delivering results.

Few theorists mention the dread words "Initiation Ceremony", but I think it is worth considering the part that initiation can play in accelerating team formation. A quick immersion in a new organisation can dispel fears and build a sense of belonging faster and more deeply than more conventional confidence-building measures. Here is my experience.


I joined the Royal Marines at 1200 BST on 6 September 1995.  By 1300 the 36 new recruits of whom I was one had discovered the rumour that in parallel to the formal induction we were going through, we could expect an informal welcome to the Corps.  As we adjusted to the strange formality of our new home at the Commando Training Centre, we wondered what horrors this mysterious event would involve.  Since our first briefings outlined the busy timetable for the first few days, it looked as though the initiation ceremony would probably be at night.  We therefore braced ourselves for some kind of shock sometime that night.

In the event, our first night was uneventful (apart from practicing our newly taught ironing skills and folding almost every item of our freshly issued equipment into A4 size).  We rose at 0600 to clean our accommodation and prepare for day 2.


We soon learned that the intake of trainees who had joined before us were away on exercise. We had discovered that they were planning to "welcome" us so we were confident that nothing would happen before their return.  Sure enough, on the night their exercise finished, we were woken at 0300 by the sound of dustbin lids being clashed like cymbals, sirens and shouting. Well prepared, we raced out of the building already in our shorts, t-shirts and running shoes, only to be caught in the beams of several powerful lights and jets of water from fire hoses. Trapped, we formed into a group as unseen people behind the lights and hoses shouted instructions.

Three of us were immediately singled out for special attention. I had featured in a television documentary following the selection process for Royal Marines officers, while each of the other two had some previous military experience, one in the SAS and the other with the Parachute Regiment. While we were "encouraged" into stress positions, the remaining 33 recruits, still illuminated by a dozen torches, ran up and down a nearby hill.


After a few minutes, and to our great relief we were allowed to rejoin the fold. Together, we were commanded to run back and forth several times between various flashing lights. In the darkness few people spotted some ruts on our path. Two people fell over. One broke his leg immediately, while the other was unhurt by the fall, but not by the impact of the man behind him who ran over his body and broke a bone in his back. While 4 people were instructed to carry the casualties to the medical centre, the rest of us raced on towards the Bottom Field, home of the assault course.

The catalogue of challenges that we endured over the next 90 minutes is too long to list, but highlights included:
  1. "fruitbats" - hanging from rusty angle-iron beams and doing endless pull-ups
  2. baby-carrying each other up and down a steep hill in shuttle relays
  3. running out into the estuary mud and practicing leopard crawling
  4. a false finish in which we returned to our accommodation only to start again
Finally, we returned to our quarters and the torches were switched off. We saw our oppressors for the first time as they came forward offering us plastic cups full of rum and welcoming us into the Royal Marines. They assured us that our injured friends were receiving treatment.

The morning after - and we belong

With less than an hour of sleep after the ceremony, we awoke to start a new day. Though we had been in the Corps for less than a week there was a palpable change of mood. During a short, sharp and strange event, we had sampled - and survived - almost all of the challenges we would take on over the coming months of training. We felt confident that we were ready for anything, and also that we had sufficient humour and team spirit to see us through.

Another important if unpalatable factor in our sense that we had completed a rite of passage was the loss of two of our colleagues. Their injuries prevented them from completing their training with us (though both had recovered sufficiently to join the following intake), and this enhanced our sense that we were now part of a special club that ruthlessly competed and focused on performance.

Too high a price

Traditionally, the chain of command had turned a blind eye to the initiation ceremony, but with the loss of two trainees (at considerable cost to the taxpayer), this approach changed.  Our initiation ceremony was the last of its kind, and we welcomed the following intake with an elaborate but victimless practical joke.

The importance of motive, respect and humour

I believe that while the human cost of our initiation ceremony was high, it was a very effective introduction to our new profession. A brief shock gave us more of a sense of belonging than the issuing of our new uniforms, or words of welcome from high-ranking officers.

I would not recommend any attempt to try to recreate the ceremony I have described, but I believe that it is useful to abstract certain ingredients that can help teams to integrate, and new members to feel that they belong and are ready to play a full part in the team:
  1. the opportunity to confront the full spectrum of team challenges early
  2. recognition by established team members
  3. establishing the sense of the privilege of membership
Most important of all, our initiation ceremony was successful as a team development experience because the people who initiated us were motivated not by a desire to inflict pain or humiliation, but by pride in their organisation and the wish to test their newest colleagues. They treated us with respect and humour.

The Royal Marines use the expression "if you can't take a joke you shouldn't have joined". It was a harsh, brutal joke, but we enjoyed it, and we knew we belonged to the organisation we had so recently joined.

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

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