Academic journal article Military Review

Relooking Unit Cohesion: A Sensemaking Approach

Academic journal article Military Review

Relooking Unit Cohesion: A Sensemaking Approach

Article excerpt


My first wish would be that my Military, family, and the whole Army, should consider themselves as a band of brothers, willing and ready to die for each other

--George Washington, writing to Henry Knox on 21 October 1798 (1)

WHEN DID THE ARMY STOP emphasizing the importance of unit cohesion? As the excerpt from George Washington's letter to the first secretary of war of the United States illustrates, cohesion has been a fundamental objective for Army leaders since the founding of the institution. Yet current Army leadership doctrine virtually overlooks the importance of unit cohesion. This lapse is both surprising and troubling, particularly in a time of decentralized operations by small units often spread over great distances, on remote patrols, or manning secluded combat outposts, vulnerable to being isolated and overrun. The Soldiers in these units count on nothing with certainty except their fellow Soldiers immediately around them. (2)

Unit cohesion is an important consideration in the best of times. In the worst of times--for an encircled unit, low on supplies, out of communication, beset by foul weather, and facing overwhelming odds--unit cohesion may be the one attribute enabling it to hang on and survive until it can break out or be relieved. The "guarantees" offered by persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), modem communications, and other technologies make it tempting to conclude that it is impossible for American units to be cut off and destroyed. But we ignore this threat at our own peril, especially in light of the grave strategic consequences that would accompany such a disaster.

The 2006 Field Manual (FM) 6-22, Army Leadership, is an improvement over its predecessor, particularly in its embrace of the ambiguity and uncertainty of the contemporary operating environment. Unfortunately, the FM also continues the slow erosion of emphasis on unit cohesion's significance in doctrine. The previous 1999 edition of Army Leadership dedicated six pages to discussing team building and unit cohesion at the direct, organizational levels of leadership. By contrast, the latest edition contains only four short paragraphs on this important topic. (3)

Worse, the current edition completes a trend evinced in the 1999 edition by conflating teamwork and cohesion. It addresses both terms in the same section of the manual without defining either term or distinguishing between the two. Yet teamwork and cohesion, while closely related, are clearly distinct.

Teamwork is the collaboration or coordinated effort of a group of Soldiers toward common goals or objectives. Cohesion, on the other hand, is both more abstract and more basic. Cohesion means a bonding together of an organization or unit's members in such a way as to sustain their will and commitment to each other, the group, and the mission. (4) Cohesion binds an organization together and enables it to function as a unified, integrated unit. Cohesion allows teamwork to occur under difficult conditions.

The seeming unimportance of cohesion in the latest FM is perhaps best reflected in the following understatement: "To operate effectively, teams, units, and organizations need to work together for common Army Values and task and mission objectives." (5) Soldiers deserve a better explanation. They need a deeper understanding of cohesion.

The rest of this article addresses steps the Army can take toward that end. I will outline the modern evolution of the Army's interest in cohesion and then introduce the ideas of Karl Weick, whose research into the connection between sense-making and cohesion provides a more appropriate way of discussing it given today's ostensibly more complex and uncertain environments. In the last section of the article, I show how Weick's ideas help explain the differing fates of two U.S. units attacked by the Chinese in North Korea in late 1950. …

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