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Business Lessons I learned in Ranger School. Lesson #2: Peer Reviews Work.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Patrick Albright

We had just completed a long movement and were settling into our patrol base for the day. While in the field at Ranger School, most training exercises end with patrol base operations at night. It’s basically a circular campsite with a bunch of guns around it to protect it. At the center of the patrol base, the person in charge, usually the Platoon Leader, huddles under a poncho formulating his plan for the evening’s operations. Not unlike camping, there are many things that have to be done (or at least should be done) prior to calling it a night. In this case, we had arrived at the patrol base before dark, which was a rare treat.

Like clockwork, once the group of students reached the patrol base, the instructors would suddenly call a halt to all activities and rotate leadership positions in order to evaluate new students. This evening was no different. A student who up until this point in the day had no leadership position at all, was violently thrust into the Platoon Leader position. This was done primarily to ensure that important details regarding the mission, the route, and the plan were being effectively communicated down to the lowest levels. In the event a leader was killed in combat, any member of the unit could immediately step up and fill the role to carry out the mission.

In the real world, Student Smith, as we’ll call him, was assigned to a Light Infantry Division and had already been in the Army for several years. Today, he was the newest Platoon Leader in the class and I was now in his previous role, lowly squad member. I had just finished digging my hasty fighting position, which was nothing more than a shallow grave dug in the dirt to provide some semblance of cover and concealment if “bullets” started flying. All students are required to dig one, even the Platoon Leader.

Smith approached me. “Hey man, I have a lot of stuff to knock out. Would you do me a huge favor and dig my fighting position for me?”

“Of course,” I replied. This wasn’t a rare request. The Platoon Leader was under a ton of pressure to perform his duties, even in the Patrol Base. After all, his every move was being evaluated  by the Ranger Instructors, and if he failed at the portion of the “mission” for which he was being evaluated, he was in jeopardy of being dropped from the course.

“Thanks man. I really owe you one.” He said, as he continued his rounds around the Patrol Base.

I walked to the center of the circle and started to dig. I don’t remember how long it took. Maybe 30 minutes. Maybe an hour. It was cold. Georgia clay is hard and digging sucks. Whatever. I felt good about helping a teammate in his time of need.

A day or two later, I was placed in the Platoon Leader position. Now the roles were reversed. I was the busy one, under pressure to get the job done and make the grade. Remembering Smith owed me a favor, I found him on the edge of this patrol base and hit him up.  

“Hey Smith. I need that favor. Would you mind helping me with my fighting position now?”

“Fuck you.” He replied.

I laughed hard, knowing full well that he was joking.

“Seriously dude. I’m scrambling. Do you mind?”

“No. Seriously, I’m not digging you fucking hole. Dig it yourself.”

He was dead serious.

I was incredulous. “Are you kidding me? Do you not remember a couple of days ago when I helped you dig your fighting position?”

“I don’t care. I’m not doing it.”

I had a couple of options here: punch the guy in the face repeatedly, and almost certainly get kicked out of the class, or walk away. I chose the latter, but I was shocked. Even with all the Type-A egos to be found in Ranger School (yes, there are SEALS in Ranger School), that type of attitude was very rare.

Fortunately, Ranger School has a wonderful little measurement tool called the Peer Review. In addition to the instructor evaluations that students receive during graded exercises, and student evaluations of the instructors, the students in each squad evaluate one another at the end of each phase. I don’t recall the specific questions on the evaluation form when I went through, but these days, I understand students are asked two simple questions, then have the option to elaborate on their responses:

  1. Would you go to combat with this person?

  2. Would you share a foxhole with this person?

The first question is designed to measure your level of trust in the person’s character and competence, the second, perhaps, their general social skills. This was the time to voice both praise and concern about other student’s behaviors, which were generally exhibited when the instructors weren’t looking. Peer reviews are designed to identify anyone who is not a team player. Those special students who act like they give a shit about their fellow teammates until the chips are down and everyone is tired, cold and hungry, and no instructors are looking. No one wants to serve with people like this in a schoolhouse environment, let alone in the real world, especially in combat.

I must not have been the only one who gave an unvarnished assessment of Smith and I must not have been the only one he treated that way. He must have scored very low, because shortly thereafter, he was no longer in Bravo Company. When a student receives low peer reviews, the cadre doesn’t just immediately kick them out of the class. After all, there could be a personality conflict of some sort, or bizarre vendetta against an innocent student. To give the student another chance, the Ranger School cadre transfers the student to another company for the next phase of the class. If they again score very poorly in peer reviews, they can be dropped from the course or “Peer’d Out.”

I’m not sure what happened to Smith and I don’t really care. I don’t recall ever seeing him in the final phase. However, I learned two valuable lessons from this situation:

First, whether you attribute it to sociopathy, rough childhood, Traumatic Brain Injury, or a litany of other excuses, some people are just assholes. When you encounter one, don’t be surprised. They walk among us.

Second, every organization can benefit from some sort of peer review system like the one used in Ranger School. There is definite value in identifying how your employees actually feel about their coworkers. This isn’t just for the Government or large corporations either. Small businesses can benefit from such exercises if conducted properly and anonymously. Once issues are identified, actions can be taken to remedy them before they become detrimental to the company. Martin Lunendonk, founder of Cleverism, wrote a great in-depth piece about creating effective peer reviews here.

Has your organization successfully employed a peer review system? If so, I’d like to hear about it.

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