Military Unit Cohesion and the Lessons It Can Teach the Corporate World

Military Unit Cohesion and the Lessons It Can Teach the Corporate World

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By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

A principal element in the success of any military unit is cohesion. Unit cohesion is defined as a set of qualities or characteristics that allow a unit to remain functional in all conditions from peace to battle.

It is quite easy for military units to do well when they have no challenge to overcome. The real mettle of a unit or small group is how well it accomplishes assigned tasks while its members are under great pressure and in dire straits.

An excellent example of this cohesion is the German Wehrmacht of World War II. Even when defeat was obvious, Wehrmacht units fought well and maintained small unit cohesion until the very end.

The lessons of military cohesion learned through trial and error over millennia are also useful in the corporate world. The elements of cohesion, properly adapted to the civilian workplace, can provide great benefits to an organization in terms of loyalty, productivity and corporate unity. One advantage of hiring veterans is that they understand the concept of small unit cohesion well and can adapt that cohesion to the civilian workplace.

Military Unit Cohesion Has Ancient Roots

The elements of cohesion have their roots in ancient times. The Roman Legions were aware of its effect on soldiers and developed military unit cohesion by separating legionaries into “contubernium” or “mess groups.”

This was the smallest Roman military unit and consisted of approximately eight men who slept in the standard 10-foot by 10-foot tent. They worked and ate together.

This type of military unit became the essential building block for the Roman legion – a military formation known for its outstanding qualities of group cohesion and esprit de corps.

The Six Elements of Group Cohesion

Group cohesion includes six essential elements:

  • Linchpin leadership
  • Effective initial indoctrination
  • Initial and follow-up training
  • Social interaction
  • Organizational faith
  • Trust

A modern term associated with working group cohesion is “network density.” Network density is simply the number of associated items in a group or in this case, the number of members in a working group.

A 2012 study suggested that group size affects cohesion, faith in group members, and commitment to the mission. The findings indicated that the optimal group size was between 4-6 members. That is interesting as it is roughly compatible with the Roman contubernium or the modern U.S. Army infantry fire team consisting of four soldiers (including a team leader).

Linchpin Leadership

Military leaders at various levels are viewed from two distinct perspectives. First, they serve as daily role models and accomplish missions. Second, they stand between subordinates and senior leaders who are usually well-known to those in the leader’s care. The leader acts as intermediary between the two groups.

While acting as an intermediary may seem like a secondary role, it is very important to subordinates because it provides a frame of reference between themselves and the unknown. This linchpin concept has been embraced by the corporate world.

Effective Initial Indoctrination

The military is a classic example of a holistic institution. It assumes complete control of a recruit’s life and expends considerable time and effort in shaping the individual to fit into the organizational mold.

Obviously, this type of institutionalization is not possible in the corporate world. However, initial training should fully acquaint the new employee with the corporate vision, its core values and mission, as well as how the individual is an important part of the team.

Once this initial training has taken place, the new employee should be further taken into the fold by being placed in a group. Even the newest employee will have purpose and worth.

History proves great teams create synergy. One way to promote this in the civilian world is to use the TEAM concept (Together Everyone Achieves More).

Initial and Follow-Up Training

While initial corporate training is not as extensive as new recruit training in the military, it is key to instilling new employees with organizational ethics and the ethos of the organization. Initial training, sometimes called orientation, is not enough. The momentum must be continued via follow-up training.

These training sessions should be interesting and hands-on. They should also contain a social element as well to ensure the employees know they are part of a team.

Every person in that team will have an important function whose value should be recognized. It is also beneficial to cross-train small group members on the responsibilities and tasks of at least one other team member, in case someone becomes ill and another team member must cover.

Social Interaction

Even today, military units are a somewhat closed society. Servicemembers and their families often live, work and socialize together to ensure cohesion. Family members even provide support to other families when unit members are deployed through the Family Support Group (FSG) concept.

Many employees today do not socialize much with one another outside the office, with the exception of social media. Nevertheless, it is beneficial to team building and cohesion when employees and their families are viewed as part of a competent, highly successful group.

In this way, people begin to see themselves as part of something larger than themselves, instead of being merely cogs in the machine of the working world. As an added benefit, this environment promotes networking, which can provide opportunities an employee might not hear about otherwise.

Organizational Faith

Organizational faith is tough to maintain in the current world of corporate downsizing and senior leadership with “golden parachutes,” as well as employees and businesses with a mercenary outlook to protect the interests of “number one.” The military is one of the last great institutions that is linked to the distant past and to the foreseeable future.

For those men and women who become servicemembers, the military offers a sense of belonging and corporate identity that lasts a lifetime. In fact, often other family members follow the same military tradition and join the service.

How can corporations tap this incredible source of esprit de corps and pride in service? First, they must make a return to the traditional idea of the social contract. Businesses should select high-quality employees and encourage them to remain with the organization.

In return, those employees will feel less stress and more loyalty when they realize their recognizes them not just as employees, but also as part of a corporate undertaking.

However, this requires a long-term commitment from senior leadership. It is also a goal to work toward and will not happen overnight.

In time, employees will spread the word that their organization is a great place to work. In turn, their words will attract new additional competent and ethical employees.


Trust is an important element in all work environments. What makes trust especially critical in a military environment is that in war, everyone must l trust that everyone else is doing their jobs. If not, they are all exposed to injury or death.

In the civilian work environment, employees should be able to trust leaders to balance their personal needs against those of the organization in a caring, community-oriented manner. The findings of a 2014 Dutch study suggested that if there is trust among employees, supervisors and managers, work productivity improves, whether the employees are working in a traditional office or remotely from home. The element of trust is an important factor, even today’s age of virtual workspaces.

Maintaining Cohesion with Virtual Teams

Since the advent of the personal computer, there has been a marked increase in “virtual teams.” These teams do not work together in the traditional physical sense, but they complete similar tasks while geographically separated. This way of working adds a whole new dimension to traditional group cohesion theory.

The military can also teach cohesion to virtual teams. For example, servicemembers support one another, even if one is located in the United States and the other in a remote location abroad. The military instills this sense of oneness into its personnel.

How can this same sense of oneness and enhanced productivity be achieved in global companies or small local businesses? One great way to ensure virtual groups are productive is to remember that they are not numbers or nameless members, but people. Two great strategies to embrace are:

  • Manage people according to the results they achieve and not by a conformist process
  • Ensure that virtual meetings are meaningful and not simply a rote exercise.

People need to feel they are part of an organization that does something meaningful. Remember, the worth of a life should be measured in who a person is and not simply by his or her profession. Respecting people for who they are will likely result in greater productivity and employee loyalty over the long term.

About the Author

Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He is an Assistant Editor for the International Journal of Risk and Contingency Management (IJRCM). He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army officer, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army.



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