Long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed to an increase in mental health issues in the U.S. military, with many soldiers struggling to cope with post-traumatic stress, depression, and other mental health conditions. In a military culture, coping with these issues isn’t easy: seeking help is stigmatized, and soldiers are often expected to simply “get over” their troubles.
Military leaders have sought to improve mental health services, but balancing the need for mental health care with the need for soldiers to perform on the job is challenging. And that effort has floundered—in part because different teams working toward that common goal failed to cooperate effectively, according to research by Julia DiBenigno, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale SOM. DiBenigno found that commanders and mental health providers often clash over care recommendations that required soldiers to refrain from field exercises or other duties; commanders feel these directives detract from their units’ readiness for deployments, while providers consider them essential to their patients’ wellbeing and recoveries.
In a study published in Administrative Science Quarterly, DiBenigno found that these conflicts can be successfully addressed by assigning members from one group to serve as points of contact for the other group, while maintaining close ties with their home group. This organizational structure promoted forming long-term relationships between providers and military units while mitigating concerns about providers becoming coopted by the interests of the more powerful commanders. According to DiBenigno, this organizational design choice worked because it allowed commanders and care providers to connect and see one another as individuals rather than faceless, oppositional entities. Breaking stereotypes by forming these connections helps resolve conflict, DiBenigno says. At the same time, because these point of contact providers still worked surrounded by their own professional colleagues, they were protected from cooptation from their closer relationships with commanders.
Typically, organizations try to solve conflicts through superordinate goals, inter-team meetings, co-location, and strategic planning, among other strategies. But these strategies frequently fail, because they don’t account for the differences in professional identities that often lie at the heart of the conflict. “When different professional groups work together, things often fall apart because each group is focused on the part of the overall goal that aligns with their professional identity,” DiBenigno says. “Even though the army adopted this overarching goal to care about not only mission readiness but mental health, different professional groups that had to deliver on that goal were each focused only on their part.”
Conflicts emerged in many areas. For example, commanders typically needed to have at least 90% of their sub-units ready for deployment, a goal they were assessed on regularly. Reaching that goal required an ethos that put the team’s needs above those of any individual soldier. When providers limited a soldier’s ability to work because of their mental health, “it degrades our troops’ ability to accomplish a mission,” a commander said.
Providers, on the other hand, were focused on individual soldiers’ wellbeing. “Even if I can’t get him back to duty, it’s also about helping someone become a good human being when they go back to society,’’ one provider said. Care providers’ need to guard patients’ health information often conflicted with a commander’s need to know whether a soldier was mentally prepared for battle. And while providers aimed to reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health care, many commanders thought soldiers should simply toughen up and cope. These differences led to an intractable conflict, where both commanders and providers stereotyped the other group (“bullies” vs. “Berkeley hippies”), and viewed their goals as opposing ones.
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