Skip to main content

Article – What we focus on is what we get – The psychology of behaviour in the Australian Army

I used to ski a lot. I remember flying down the slopes in the Snowy Mountains, sometimes out of control, and ending up on the rocky, icy bits that hurt pretty bad. I used to tell myself “Stay away from the rocks…!”, yet I always ended up on the rocks. Until one afternoon, I changed it to “Stay on the snow…!”. Suddenly, I avoided the rocks every time. It was pretty cool. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had unconsciously modified my thoughts to focus on what I wanted instead of what I didn’t want, which modified my experience.

I’m talking about the phrase: “What you focus on is what you get, to the detriment of everything else”—a common saying in coaching, which comes from understanding how the Reticular Activating System works in our brains and controls what we do and don’t pay attention to. To experience positivity, growth and abundance, you must focus on them, rather than negativity, fear, doubt and lack. This concept can be applied to behaviour in our Army.

Many of you probably have children, have been around children or have young family members. You’ve probably also seen a child being told not to do something, and doing it anyway.

There’s an interesting correlation between this and the behaviour that’s been in the spotlight over the last ten years in Army. We spend a lot of time and resources telling our soldiers and officers what not to do, and some do it anyway. Why?

It comes back to that phrase. We focus on what we don’t want, and that’s what we get. It’s simple really. To experience behaviour that models our values, we should articulate and focus on those behaviours, exemplifying the people who do exhibit them frequently, rather than punishing those who don’t.

In my research for a project I am currently working on, I read an article by Colonel Brad Kilpatrick, who was the Commanding Officer at ADFA (Australian Defence Force Academy) at the time, on ‘The design and implementation of adolescent learning strategies based on cognitive and educational psychology’. I noticed a noteworthy correlation between the findings of the report and how to shape the considered, collaborative and consultative Army that we are seeking to create. Allow me to elaborate.

A functional brain develops in a particular order. The amygdala matures first. It assesses incoming information for threats, and if detected, triggers the part of the body that controls the fight, flight or freeze response. It also helps regulate emotions.

Secondly, there’s the nucleus accumbens, which processes reward and pleasure. This response is more active in adolescents than in children and adults, meaning “adolescents are drawn to immediate gains over those that are long term…”.[1]

Lastly, is the prefrontal cortex, which can “organise multiple tasks; inhibit specific impulses; maintain self-control; set goals and priorities; empathise with others; initiate appropriate behaviour; make sound judgements; form strategies; plan ahead, and; adapt to changing situations”[2].

In adolescents (approximately 15-24 years of age) “erratic and impulsive behaviour is a product of an overstimulated pleasure seeking nucleus accumbens, supported by emotional responses from a mature and developed amygdala, that lacks the moderation and control of a fully (mature) prefrontal cortex”[3]. Translation: young people do dumb stuff sometimes, because it feels good.

The author also remarked: “rather than focusing on punishment, or imploring subjects to empathise with their victims, more effective strategies to use with adolescents demonstrating callous unemotional traits or non-callous traits (unacceptable behaviour) would be to focus on rewards for demonstrating the correct behaviour or appeals to their own self interest”[4].

This evidence suggests that to have an organisation where young people exhibit the behaviour we want, we must focus on demonstrating that behaviour, and give them “immediate public praise for demonstrations of desired behaviour” that is “immediate, extrinsic and potentially elevates their status with their peers”[5].

The problem is, it takes half a day to discipline a soldier for wrongdoing,  yet can take months, if not years, to reward someone. The difficulty in recommending a soldier for an award means it’s almost not worthwhile, and most don’t even come to fruition, because the process is so bureaucratic. That probably needs to change.

Einstein said the definition of insanity is “Doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results”. That says it all. Most of our demographic want immediate rewards, and we can’t give it to them because 1. The rewards system needs to become much more responsive and 2. “The military has a culture associated with providing awards and medals for actions that are considered ‘above and beyond the call of duty.”[6] If we want to start changing our organisational behaviour, we need to change the way we approach the problem. Remember what Einstein said.

To change the culture of our Army, we must exemplify, model and immediately reward the behaviour we want. If we want a considered, collaborative and consultative Army, we must focus on those traits. We must decide and articulate how that kind of individual behaves, which leaders we should model and how to reward these people quickly. Let’s focus on what we want, because that’s what we’ll get, to the exclusion of everything else.

 

[1] Brad Kilpatrick,  ‘The design and implementation of adolescent learning strategies based on cognitive and educational psychology’. 2017; p13

[2] Brad Kilpatrick, The design and implementation of adolescent learning strategies based on cognitive and educational psychology, 2017; p11

[3] Brad Kilpatrick, The design and implementation of adolescent learning strategies based on cognitive and educational psychology, 2017; p13

[4] Brad Kilpatrick, The design and implementation of adolescent learning strategies based on cognitive and educational psychology, 2017; p14-15

[5] Brad Kilpatrick, The design and implementation of adolescent learning strategies based on cognitive and educational psychology, 2017; p67

[6] Brad Kilpatrick, The design and implementation of adolescent learning strategies based on cognitive and educational psychology, 2017; p66

 


About the author

Sarah Macarthur-King is an experienced Army Officer and Leadership Coach with a passion for human behaviour, the study of excellence in human performance and empowering women to achieve great things.


Disclaimer

The Cove is a professional development site for the Australian Profession of Arms. The views expressed within individual blog posts and videos are those of the author, and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees – see more here. Any concerns regarding this blog post, video or resource should be directed in the first instance to hello@cove.org.au.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *