The US Department of Defense (DoD) employs more psychologists than any other entity in the United States. These psychologists, and related performance experts, are integral to service members’ well-being. They support military personnel and their families in psychological evaluations and diagnosing and treating patients’ behavioral health issues. They help to improve healthy lifestyle habits such as sleep, diet, and exercise and build cognitive skills such as resilience, memory, attention, and decision-making.
Working with military service members was my focus when I came out of school with a master’s degree in clinical and counseling psychology. I worked with service members in the DoD for seven years. Now, as a behavioral scientist in the corporate world, I apply foundational elements from my time working with the military to this new environment. Based on my experience, I’ve outlined three takeaways organizational leaders can apply to their workforces.
1. Proactively teach skills they’ll need later
When I started working with the military, I assumed I’d be working with service members in the traditional way—reactively. I thought I would help soldiers transition back to civilian life by targeting and discussing issues related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among other common concerns. Instead, I worked more proactively with service members to help them prepare for deployment and perform optimally in their roles.
Through coaching on critical soft skills like resilience and emotional regulation, this proactive approach gave service members the skills they needed to perform at a high level and successfully cope with their experiences while deployed.
We focused on cognitive skills training for soldier readiness in their specific responsibilities. For example, when service members trained with weapons in “stress shoots,” I would work with them on tactical breathing, focused attention, and decision-making skills. I would use biofeedback mechanisms to get objective measures of their heart rate and other indicators of stress to determine what specific behaviors could be addressed to improve performance.
Once the exercise was completed, we would work through wind-down techniques to regulate their physiology and recover. These skills and strategies were vital to learn for future deployments to be effective in their roles and be able to recharge for day-to-day missions.
Cognitive skills are sometimes seen as innate abilities, but people can practice and develop them over time, like many other skill sets. In a corporate setting, digital coaching can help employees work on similar skills relevant to their responsibilities, like conflict management, communication, and problem-solving. That way, when an employee is called upon to use those skills, they will be equipped to succeed, just as the military personnel became more prepared for their next stressful situation.
2. Sometimes, people must fail to grow
Mental health and cognitive skills training are still stigmatized within most military settings. This can make it difficult to gain rapport and trust with service members. Sometimes I dealt with people who thought I don’t need support from a psychologist—I can handle this myself. As a result, they wouldn’t approach me until something went wrong.
This I don’t need help mentality can be common in the military but equally pervasive in the workplace. Unfortunately, most adults have to experience failure to realize they need help. Failure is disheartening but can also present valuable opportunities for personal growth. It allows service members and employees to reflect on what went wrong and what they could have done differently. It can also be an exercise in resilience that develops coping skills and mental fortitude.
For this to occur, employees need an environment with supportive leaders and a culture where making mistakes is seen as a growth opportunity. When organizations view failure as an opportunity rather than a setback and foster a culture where people can learn from mistakes, employees may be more likely to reach out for the support needed to grow, develop, and prevent future similar mistakes. Workplaces can achieve more open collaboration and more innovative solutions.
3. Healthy habits are integral to productivity and satisfaction
When I left my position with the military, one of the carryovers I wanted to focus on was the importance of sleep, diet, and exercise. I’m currently pursuing my Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology, and much of my research centers on the cognitive and performance benefits of developing healthy habits. If people don’t prioritize a healthy lifestyle, it won’t matter what cognitive skill I try to teach them.
If someone is tired, inactive, or poorly fueled, their ability to learn new skills, manage emotions and perform at a high level is diminished. It becomes increasingly difficult to teach emotion regulation, delegation, or skills for a growth mindset if they can’t focus due to deficits in one or many of these areas.
For organizations, implementing strategies such as a culture of work-life balance, providing healthy diet choices, and time for movement throughout the day can help create a healthier, happier, more productive workforce. It may seem basic, but highlighting health helps improve employee—and organizational—well-being.
Proactively coaching employees, using failure as a learning tool, and encouraging the development of healthy habits are all ways organizations can apply the lessons I learned to a corporate setting to better support their workforces.
Laurel McKenzie is a senior behavioral scientist and North American team leader at CoachHub, a digital platform for professional coaching. She has 8+ years of specialized experience in cognitive performance, coaching, and applications of psychological principles that enhance employee performance and leadership development.