Wednesday 17 August 2011

How a crisis can help a team to bond

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

Biscuits Brown
A crisis can make or break a team. In particular, if trust breaks down within the team it can become very difficult to operate. If you are a member of a team that experiences a crisis, it's worth reflecting on some of the ways the team can protect itself from breakdown and turn the crisis into a bonding experience. Certain key factors can help with this process - open communications, patience and loyalty - as I learned early on in training as a Royal Marine.

One last inspection

On the final day of Exercise Tenderfoot, our first experience of "military camping" as trainee Royal Marines, we experienced a crisis. Friday started as usual with an inspection of all our equipment at 0600. In the dawn light a group of 36 young men stood behind groundsheets carefully laid with every item of our personal equipment. Our rifles were stripped down for detailed inspection, our mess tins polished and of course all our clothes were folded to the regulation A4 size and laid out in the same format as everyone else's.

But Friday was to be the last day of the 5 day exercise, and we were looking forward to a chance to recuperate over the weekend. It had been a tough week, but it was nearly over.

Get on the flank

Unfortunately, failing an inspection carried a heavy penalty. If your rifle barrel contained a speck of dust or your toothpaste tube was not evenly squeezed, you would be told by the inspecting Sergeant to "get on the flank". This involved quickly packing away all your equipment and running to the side of the inspection area. Once the inspection was complete, the group on the flank would be taken away for a period of about 45 minutes of "corrective training" - running up and down steep hills with heavy loads and doing uncountable pressups, situps, burpees, squats, leg raises, etc etc. This is known as a "thrashing" and is often accompanied by colourful expressions from the instructors like "I'm going to thrash you til your eyes bleed!"

Obstacle crossing drills

While the unfortunate flankers were being thrashed, those few of us who had passed the inspection were sent off to learn how to conduct a military obstacle crossing. This involves carefully approaching, checking and then crossing the obstacle covertly while protecting each other from attack. We rehearsed this so that when the flankers returned from their thrashing we would be able to show them a demonstration.

The flankers joined us once they had collected their 24 hour ration packs (boxes containing 3,600 calories of food to keep soldiers well fed in the field), and we gave our demonstration. Then, reunited, we all practiced obstacle crossings and other techniques for the remainder of the morning.

Who's been eating my biscuits?

At lunchtime we returned to the main camp, and those of us who had given the demonstration earlier had the opportunity to collect our ration packs. I was the last to collect mine and noticed that it had been opened, and a packet of brown biscuits had been removed. Foolishly, I said "has anyone seen the biscuits from this ration pack?" Colour Sergeant Richards overheard and boomed "Who has stolen Mr Brabyn's biscuits?"

Brown biscuits (photo above) are not much different from the hard tack issued in Nelson's Navy, so I wasn't very upset that my ration pack was missing a packet of them. Several people immediately offered to share their biscuits with me, and I told C/Sgt Richards that it really wasn't a problem...

But he disagreed. To him it appeared that there was a criminal in our midst. Food is of vital (literally) importance to the soldier, and anyone who tampers with it could cause terrible consequences. He ordered us all to stand in three ranks and then explained that he wanted the culprit to own up. No-one did.


As it began to rain, we were treated to a severe thrashing. Stress positions combined with leopard crawling through sand and gravel opened cuts and scrapes and soon we were all soaked and mostly bleeding. After about 15 minutes, C/Sgt Richards announced that he would return in 10 minutes after we had had the chance to flush out the thief in our midst.

What followed was a combination of painful comedy and game theory. No one would confess. After 10 minutes, the thrashing began again. In a perverse adaptation of the prisoner's dilemma, we each weighed the likely consequences of making a false confession, speculating whether the courage of the confessor would mitigate any punishment, and whether our colleagues would believe we were confessing only for their benefit.

When the next pause came, someone suggested that since no-one would confess openly perhaps they would do it one-to-one. Since my biscuits were the stolen ones, I was chosen as the person to hear this high-speed series of private declarations. 35 people trooped past me whispering that "it wasn't me". After half a dozen had passed, I couldn't stop laughing out of frustration that this trivial biscuit loss had led to an apparently impassable problem and a potentially endless thrashing.

We knew we had finished our training and we also had enough rations to last until the following day, so we faced the prospect of 24 hours of misery unless someone owned up.

The thrashings continued, interspersed with further breaks in which we discussed whether to stand in solidarity or offer a human sacrifice. We stood firm. After a few hours, the training team decided that they had proved their point (or that they wanted to get home) and we ran the 4 miles back to the Commando Training Centre.

Open communications, patience and loyalty

Although we could have offered up a false confessor (recent studies show how easy it is to prompt a false confession), we chose to stick together. We were under a lot of pressure and in some cases pain too, and it was by quickly talking through our options and agreeing that it was better for us all if we pushed through the discomfort and stuck together, we eventually prevailed.

It was a bizarre episode in which a trivial loss resulted in hours of misery, but it came to form part of the lore and narrative of our little group - and it still does today. Ask any of those 36 people about "the biscuits" and they will instantly know what you mean even 16 years on. More importantly, it reassured us all that sticking together, even when we had good cause for distrust, was the best option for the group.

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

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