Seven Navy SEAL life lessons to boost remote worker productivity.

Diane Balogh profile image April 30, 2021 | 5 min read

Finding it challenging to manage a remote workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic? If so, you are not alone. Research from Harvard Business Review published in 2020 suggests that many managers are having difficulties managing remote workers.

To solve this challenge, it might help to seek inspiration from a group of people who know how to perform under pressure. The Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, and Land), who trace their origins back to World War II, are widely regarded as an outstanding special operations force. They are known for their very high training standards; the program has an attrition rate of over 70 percent.

Your remote workforce probably doesn’t have to carry out physically dangerous missions like a Navy SEAL. However, there are still lessons to draw from how this elite unit develops skills, pursues training, and overcomes challenges.

  1. Practice extreme leadership.

The extreme leadership concept became popular thanks to the book Extreme Ownership, How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. In short, the concept means that one must take responsibility for what is happening. Specifically, this perspective means avoiding blaming other people.

As a manager, practicing extreme leadership might mean taking the time to guide employees on best practices to stay focused at home. Also, this principle can include coaching employees to think creatively when they face a problem. For example, if a customer doesn’t know how to use video conferencing, encourage them to switch to a phone call or email.

  1. There are only bad leaders, not bad teams.

The Navy SEALs are known for their teamwork. Jocko and Leif point out that poor-performing SEAL teams have immediately improved when they have a better leader.

From a manager’s point of view, look for ways to reflect when problems occur. For example, if an employee struggles in a remote work environment, such difficulties might be caused by a lack of manager support and guidance. If that feels like a reasonable explanation in your situation, then reach out to your remote workers and ask them about the problems they face.

  1. Keep things simple.

Put yourself in the boots of a Navy SEAL conducting a stressful mission. They have a lot to worry about, including the potential for team members to misunderstand the plan. To reduce this risk, some Navy SEALS advocate keeping things simple as a guiding principle.

To help with remote employees, look for ways to simplify their work. For instance, if customer service representatives struggle to answer a certain type of question, consider creating a procedure document that offers a step-by-step solution. 

Tip: Keeping business communication simple is another way to apply this principle. For example, if a remote worker struggles to get video conferencing to work, pick up your business phone and call them to catch up.

  1. Stay focused on priorities. 

Ever felt overwhelmed by a long to-do list? A similar kind of overwhelm is a challenge for special forces as well. When there are too many demands on a person, they may feel unable to act.

Some remote employees are experiencing work-life balance problems like working on the weekend. In that situation, focus may be helpful. If you are a manager and sense that a remote worker has too much on their plate, give that person permission to focus on a single priority (e.g., making sales calls to retain customers) and defer other activities. 

  1. Be decisive.

A lack of information is a constant challenge during the pandemic. There is uncertainty about when the pandemic will end. Some remote workers may also wonder if their company will survive because tens of thousands of companies have closed in the past year. The Navy SEAL approach to uncertainty is simple: Make a decision rather than wait and see.

Think about how to apply the decisive lesson in a remote working environment. Are there business decisions you have been putting off for weeks or months? If so, the act of delaying the decision might be making the problem worse.

In the Navy SEAL framework, not deciding is also a decision because “a situation degenerate due to a lack of firmness and decisiveness.” For example, if a lease on an office building is going to expire in 30 days, the office will lose its space if the business leader takes no action to renew it.

  1. Achieve success with discipline.

Former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink has a saying: “Discipline equals freedom.” Willink explained the concept in an interview: “The only way to get to a place of freedom is through discipline. If you want financial freedom, you have to have financial discipline. If you want more free time, you have to follow a more disciplined time management system.”

The Economist found that workers around the world worked longer hours when working from home in 2020.  So a disciplined approach to time management might help achieve a better work-life balance. For instance, set a defined work schedule and walk away from your work when the end of the workday arrives.

  1. Invest time and effort into training.

To become a Navy SEAL, there is an intense month long training process to develop skills and enhance physical fitness. After completing the initial training program, a Navy SEAL continues to invest time and effort into training. The intense focus on training in advance for missions is one reason the special operations force is so effective.

Look for ways to provide more extensive training to help remote employees succeed. Training might start with the fundamentals of work-from-home productivity. After that skill set is developed, think about the tools and apps your team uses every day, like a business video conferencing app. For example, remote employees may not know how to run a video conference call with multiple participants.

Next steps to apply Navy SEAL life lessons.

These life lessons will only help you succeed if you practice them. If the prospect of putting all of these techniques into practice is overwhelming, don’t worry. Start with one or two lessons this month and see if they help you get more done.

Practicing extreme ownership is an excellent starting point. The concept of taking ownership of everything that happens to you can be applied in different situations. For instance, imagine a customer ends their contract because of late deliveries. An extreme ownership-minded person would accept the situation and look for lessons to be learned from that experience so they can improve overall customer satisfaction.

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