Cover: Assessing the Association Between Airmen Participation in Force Support Squadron Programs and Unit Cohesion

Assessing the Association Between Airmen Participation in Force Support Squadron Programs and Unit Cohesion

An Evaluation of the UNITE Initiative

Published May 20, 2022

by Stephanie Brooks Holliday, Sarah O. Meadows, Stephani L. Wrabel, Laura Werber, Christopher Joseph Doss, Wing Yi Chan, Lu Dong, Brandon Crosby

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Research Questions

  1. How was the UNITE Initiative implemented, and what are its successes, limitations, and lessons learned?
  2. How are UNITE event characteristics associated with the building blocks of readiness and resilience?
  3. How are the readiness and resilience building blocks directly and indirectly associated with overall unit, social, and task cohesion at both the first and second post-event surveys?

In 2016, the Air Force began an effort to revitalize squadrons, aimed at promoting the readiness and resilience of the force. In light of this effort, the Air Force Services Center established the UNITE Initiative and hired Community Cohesion Coordinators (C3s) across participating installations to plan programs, activities, and events that directly support unit cohesion, leveraging Force Support Squadron activities along with resources and activities in the local community.

Previous research suggests that providing units with opportunities to participate in group activities could serve to improve cohesion. However, the Air Force lacks data that demonstrate a correlation between the use of these activities and expected outcomes. In this report, the authors examine this connection by conducting an initial evaluation of the UNITE Initiative. The authors accomplish this evaluation by conducting interviews with C3s and reviewing post-event feedback from C3s, units, and airmen participants to understand how the program was implemented and identify successes, limitations, and lessons learned. The authors also use two post-event surveys, completed by airmen roughly two and six weeks after participating in a UNITE event, to examine whether participation was associated with perceptions of unit cohesion.

Key Findings

Overall, airmen and commanders indicated a high degree of satisfaction with how UNITE was implemented

  • Many of the comments from respondents suggested that airmen, in particular, perceived UNITE events to be an opportunity to relax and unwind while getting to know their fellow unit members.
  • However, there also were concerns about low attendance at some events, which could mitigate some of the perceived positive effects of the initiative.

C3s were viewed as a valuable resource by unit commanders

  • However, C3s sometimes felt overburdened by a combination of UNITE and other duties assigned to them by installation leadership.
  • C3s also showed interest in continued training and education, as well as more networking with fellow C3s.

Improvements could be made in messaging about UNITE

  • C3s, unit commanders, and airmen all agreed that it was important to make sure that airmen are aware of specific events and that they know the purpose of the overall UNITE Initiative.
  • One cause of concern is the perception by some airmen that UNITE events are “mandatory fun.” Another is the lack of consistent marketing materials available to C3s.

Certain UNITE event characteristics were associated with post-event measures of cohesion

  • Participation in UNITE events that airmen rated as an opportunity to decompress, interact with other airmen, and reinforce peer, squadron, and Air Force values were associated with higher levels of overall unit cohesion two weeks after participation.
  • However, the associations between social interaction and overall unit cohesion dissipated over time (i.e., eight weeks after participation).

Recommendations

  • Increase awareness of UNITE among unit commanders. Commanders and airmen noted that they were not aware of UNITE until they heard of other units having events. C3s noted that one of their biggest obstacles to successfully implementing UNITE was a lack of awareness on the part of units.
  • Improve UNITE messaging through use of standardized materials. C3s and airmen said that the purpose of UNITE is not always obvious. Unit commanders should be clear that UNITE events are designed to enhance unit cohesion, often through team-building.
  • Repeat UNITE events throughout the year. The diminishing effects of UNITE are probably not surprising and suggest that certain types of events — those that allow for decompression, fellowship, and celebration of what it means to be an airman — should be repeated. Emphasizing volunteer events (e.g., manning a food bank or kitchen) could provide one way to stretch UNITE dollars further and allow for multiple events throughout the year.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to hold UNITE events outside the gates of the installation. One particularly intriguing finding was a negative association between activities provided by the installation Force Support Squadron and the building blocks of readiness and resilience that were identified by the authors. There is evidence to suggest that airmen were more receptive to events that took them away from day-to-day life on the installation.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by Air Force Manpower, Personnel and Services, Directorate of Services (AF/A1S) and conducted within the Workforce, Development, and Health Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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