6 June 2019

4 Military Strategies Used By Decision Makers To Make Their Teams Productive

When we think of the average ‘high-performance’ work environment, it is easy to imagine that procedures and pin-point planning are what keep employees productive and focused on their project targets. But leaders with a military background recognise an ingredient that makes all the difference: procedures and planning are useless without the right ‘behavioural’ conditions among team members – but this also needs to come ‘top-down’ from the project leader.


When real bullets are flying, the promise of a raise or end-of-year bonus makes little HR sense: military leaders instead maintain productivity by turning to the currency of team behaviours, many of which would simply be ignored in a business environment.

And at the scale of a military operation, unproductive team relationships represent a real waste in time and resources. This productivity margin may be minor for smaller team sizes – but business leaders with a military background also recognise team behaviours as an asset for future growth: just as some behaviours create the toxic atmosphere behind high team turnover, the leadership used to motivate the high-pressure sales team could mean the difference between a business that stays stagnant – and rising as an industry leader.



We have all heard the term ‘downtime’ and ‘work time’. But this plays out quite differently in a military environment.

Unlike a civilian enterprise, the military merges personal and work relationships together: team members know when to nod to firm orders exchanged on the battlefield, but are then more than happy to grab a beer together later and discuss normal social topics.

Just as we might be suspicious with the ‘team buddy’ program in a large organisation such as Apple, military relationships are also completely planned: every relationship and behaviour must be an asset for the mission as a whole – and this can be make-or-break for an operation with so many resources on the line.

But according to ex-Navy Seal Brent Gleeson, this ironically creates relationships that are more genuine and stable:

‘’My teammates know that a leader who isn’t present mentally or physically during mission- time is a liability – there needs to be a procedure of behaviour for that. And yes, I may laugh and joke with teammates about the latest football score – but any gossip about another team member quickly triggers the same reaction: I put their beer to one side, stare at them stern; and remind them that their behaviour is unacceptable.’’ (Owen, 2018).

This attitude shared by other Navy Seals provides an important lesson for business leaders: social interactions between team members should not be seen as separate to project outcomes, but instead, as a set of behaviours that either help or hinder team productivity.

However, the military leaders and ex-Navy Seals that we meet at CONQA Group not only enable us to infer strategies that may possibly work within a business environment – but leaders such as Brent are actually using these military behavioural strategies to help manage teams in their new life as a startup CEO.

Based on his past experience as a Navy Seal, Brent now echoes the following leadership strategies to manage his workplace teams:

  • Although rigorous procedure forms a strong part of his employee on-boarding process – so too does team culture and ‘behavioural tuning’. New employees are trained to become conditioned to social behaviours that promote natural collaboration and quick decision-making towards a project target: echoing the healthy social conditioning of his past military team, innovative thinking and collaboration are not just ‘orders’ in the HR manual – his team are trained socially to lock-on to the mission of the project.

  • In most startup environments, turning up late for a meeting might be a negative mark for the next performance review. But in Brent’s team, this would be a social disappointment. Mirroring his past military downtime with team members, the entrepreneur knows the value of scheduling team social events on the startup calendar: the free-flowing discussion triggered by social events signals feedback for him to review for later, enabling him to continually refine his leadership style; and the friend-like behaviours encouraged through social events make disappointments to the project target a disappointment to the social group (W. Martin, 2013).

These leadership strategies could be applied to the high-performance sports team or government agency. However, these military strategies could give quite a tactical advantage to the business leader or startup entrepreneur.



Planning ‘team downtime’ activities may encourage the free-flowing employee feedback that a leader can review later. But even this breaks down at a larger scale – and the military recognises this by introducing methodologies that collect and process this rich feedback systematically.

However, although this large-scale analysis of team behaviour is crucial for tweaking team structures and maximising output – could this also reveal strategies to boost productivity for teams for a company within the private sector?

We have all heard the quote from Steve Jobs: ‘’We should not be hiring people to tell them what to do – but for them to tell us what to do’’.

But digging deeper, this may actually reflect the effort taken by larger organisations to mimic military methodologies within their own HR processes: if larger organisations are quietly adopting military-style strategies for employee performance management, this presents an advantage for business leaders seeking to keep workplace relationships productive as their company scales.

In military organisations, these are referred to as ‘norm-setting’ and ‘boundary spanning’: these feedback mechanisms are designed to collect data from team members during missions of combat and high-stress scenarios – but could also be adapted to improve ‘business’ missions and improve team productivity towards sales or HR project outcomes.

• The first behaviour management methodology used by military organisations is ‘boundary spanning and process output’. This strategy uses conversational data and habit tracking by individual teams to identify realistic performance limits: this enables military leaders to more reliably delegate activities – but this same systematic logging of ‘behavioural’ data could also help the project manager delegate activities to team members within a private organisation (C. Clark, 2011).

• Another behaviour management system originating from the military is ‘optimum communication for adaptability’. The idea behind this methodology is that the logged statements and behaviours of team members can be analysed later to infer implications for the mission that would not have been recognised by the mission leader: this provides ‘helicopter vision’ of team morale and mission status – but this same data strategy could also be used for ‘verbal heavy’ activities within a private company such as HR or sales (Steven J., 2010).



Maintaining ‘helicopter vision’ through military data collection methodologies could be the ingredient that distinguishes successful private organisations. But even for the larger organisations mimicking these strategies, the inability to action this data and remove toxic relationships is still a barrier to team productivity.

In a military environment, unproductive behaviours are suppressed quickly – however socially awkward or difficult to raise. In theory, we all recognise the benefit of taking the awkward step of reminding employees of their boundaries – the difference in the military is that leaders take the behavioural step to actually do it.

With a military approach to managing your workplace relationships, even the smallest discriminatory joke, passive comment or anti-social attitude becomes unacceptable. But in addition to the importance of mimicking the behavioural assertiveness of other leaders and executing this theoretical reaction to anti-social activity, there is a ‘warning timeline’ developed between the military and private enterprise that may be especially productive if managing a start-up or small business team:

  • One methodology for addressing anti-social team behaviours is ‘group harmonics and co-working culture management’: this process attempted to take many of the trained social norms designed for a military setting and identified a ‘warning and action timeline’ that could be implemented quickly in a co-working environment (E. Garrett, 2010).



As we explore all of these military strategies, one common thread is clear: despite all the structure and automation that a large military organisation can implement at a snap of a finger, the behavioural execution and leadership of a productive workplace culture is something that cannot be delegated.

Just as team members require prior training, generals and captains are expected to be tuned in advance to the traits and team-building activities that keep their team productive: just as operational and strategic decisions need to be made instinctively to move a team towards a project milestone – the behavioural traits that encourage productive working relationships needs to be present naturally from the leader.


In this week’s article, we explored several military behaviours and strategies designed that could be used to keep the productivity of your own workplace relationships productive:

  1. Your team on-boarding and training curricula could be updated to include a module for ‘culture and behavioural tuning’ to maximise behaviours that promote collaboration and idea-sharing.

  2. Implement planned social events with your team: this is a ‘data collection exercise’ for capturing employee feedback that could improve your performance as a project leader.

  3. Standardise utterance logging and habit tracking among team members: as demonstrated at a larger scale for military cases, this provides rich data for you to identify the realistic performance limits of your team – and therefore distribute activities more accurately.

  4. This same logged data may provide rich data on the real limitations of your team members. But a closer look at this qualitative data may also suggest modifications that you as a business leader can make to the organisation as a whole.

  5. Although official data collection strategies do indicate that the behaviours and social norms of members at the team level can be conditioned with the right measures – this is more difficult for members in leadership: just as team members in a military or business environment require ‘behavioural tuning’ from an organisation’s HR policy and training program – effective leadership behaviour also requires exposure from a learning environment. At Conqa Group, we have tackled this missing piece of the leadership training process by hosting invite-only events that provide exposure to the leadership behaviours and strategies from both the military and business spheres.