Image courtesy of Flikr user Marine Corps. Image courtesy of Flikr user Marine Corps.

By Major Carl “Skin” Forsling, USMC

In the 1960s, Douglas McGregor of MIT identified the Theory X and Theory Y of management.  Theory X posited that management assumes employees are inherently lazy and intentionally avoid work.  Theory X managers believe that employees require threats and coercion to align their efforts with the company’s goals.

Theory Y managers believe that workers want to do well at work.  They believe that if the conditions are right, workers will be self-motivated and exercise self-control, that job satisfaction is a key to motivation.

Guess which theory is easier to implement?

Improving our people.

 In private businesses, only those businesses with simple, monotonous tasks rely on Theory X today.  Minimum wage retail businesses still rely on one-strike-you’re-out policies.  Another warm body is always easy to get.  If training requirements are minimal, and a human beings are just a cogs in a larger machine, then why not treat them as such?

The military has decided that Theory X is the way of the world, that machines are less problematic than people.  All four services have begun increasingly draconian personnel policies to cull those not meeting organizational standards.  We are trying to improve our quality of personnel by attrition, by weeding out those who don’t make the standard, not by improving them.

We treat highly trained troops as if they are manning a counter at Walmart.  Doing a good job is the baseline.  Screwing up is a ticket to unemployment

Does anyone really care about the professional and personal development of officer and staff NCOs?  We say we’re committed to a high-quality corps of officers and senior enlisted leaders, but is there really any actual effort to cultivate it?

Complaining about the wrong end.

 For evaluations of junior enlisted, the military performance evaluation system may not measure the right things, but at least it’s relatively straightforward and transparent.  A junior soldier or Marine with a low score on his evaluation knows he needs to run faster, shoot better, take PME courses, and stay out of trouble in order to get promoted.

For senior enlisted and officers, there is little consistency, and certainly zero transparency.  The career implications of evaluations usually only become clear sometime after they are received.

Proposals to address the quality of military leadership always seem to come down to changing the means by which we evaluate leaders.  That certainly has a place.  The military’s evaluation system is outdated and in many ways dysfunctional. However, we can change the evaluation system anyway we like, yet the quality of our leadership may not change that much.  We have to improve the people we have, not just fire the people at the bottom and hope we’ve canned the people who deserve it.

Superiors undoubtedly believe that they are giving honest assessments of their subordinates.  The question is, are they really?

While the military occasionally flirts with 360-degree evaluations, any system will likely still involve a superior evaluating a subordinate.  How do we actually make that more than a butt-kissing contest?

If the definition of “excelling” is pleasing one’s immediate superior, then we are already measuring the right things.  If the definition is combat effectiveness, the answer is much less clear.

What exactly would you say you do here?

The first step towards making our evaluation system better, along with our promotion and retention processes, and thus our leadership, is to actually do what we’re supposed to have been doing all along.  Talk to your people.  Actually start to care about making them better, rather than merely worry about getting their evaluations in on time.  Make your goal improving your people rather than evaluating them.

That’s it.  Pretty simple.

As an officer or senior enlisted, when was the last counseling session you received?  When you started a job, did you discuss your billet description?  Did your boss tell you what you would be graded on?  Have you done this for your immediate subordinates?

If you haven’t, how do you expect your subordinates to meet your “standards” if you haven’t set them, much less actually told them?

If your are anything like the dozens of officers I’ve spoken to, your answer for both sets of questions is likely “no.”  You didn’t tell your subordinates what you expected of them.  You didn’t tell them that, “setting the example” as an officer meant a first-class Physical Fitness Test.  You didn’t tell them what you expected of them to get an above-average grade for “professional military education.”  You didn’t tell them what you expected from them in the next unit inspection.  How did you expect them to know these things?  It shouldn’t be the junior leader answering the question,”What exactly would you say you do here?” as in the movie Office Space.  It’s the supervisor’s job to tell him.

We can say that officer and staff NCOs are big boys, that they should be able to take care of themselves, but the truth is that they are just people doing a job.  Most of them try to do it the best that they can, but in the end, most superiors will end up grading those based on whether they liked the person.

We can enact all sorts of statistical games to encourage more objective grading, but unless we can get graders to actually talk to those they evaluate, cosmetic changes to the evaluation system are a waste of time.

Officers, in particular, are loathe to give honest, critical feedback to other officers. Perhaps it’s the civil academic discourse of a college setting coming out years later, but I know more officers who have major valor awards than I know who give regular counseling to subordinates.  That means that most leaders would rather face enemy fire than sit down with their juniors and have an honest discussion of performance in the past and expectations for the future.

That’s as screwed up as a football bat.

You owe your subordinates, not the other way around.

How, exactly, do we expect our junior leaders to improve if this is how we handle them?  The only way the services are ensuring quality is by attriting those who fail to meet their standards, by denying them promotions, or by simply expelling them from the service. In reality, the only standard most senior leaders have met is that of making good impressions on their bosses.  The people who succeed under our current paradigm are, in the best case, naturals at their jobs.  In a less optimistic estimate, they are ass-kissers.  In reality it’s likely a mix of both.  By not even trying to use counseling to improve our people, we leave potentially talented military leaders to the wolves, just because they don’t fit the military’s preset mold right out of the starting blocks.

Building an honest, forthright relationship with our subordinates is the only way we will ever get them to leave a command better leaders than when they came.  Somehow, though, senior leaders cannot find an extra half-hour a month to invest in this, because it might make them personally uncomfortable.  Many leaders would rather give a subordinate a velvet dagger on an evaluation upon departure.  There is a word for that.  Cowardice.

Leaders with this philosophy are losing out themselves as well as cheating the military as an institution.  They are losing out on junior leaders who could be doing a better job, who want to be doing a better job, but who just don’t know what they don’t know.  The vast majority of people in the military earnestly want to do a good job.  Not all succeed on the first try.  Give them some honest feedback and they could do it.  The military is leaving a great deal of talent on the table, slaving away in blissful ignorance, at least until they get their evaluations.

These evaluations are used as a counseling tool, and a very inefficient one at that.  Every write-up sounds glowing.  Only by reading into the grades and numbers does one actually figure out where one stands.  That person gets no guidance on how to improve.  After a series of sub-par reports, maybe he realizes, or is told by a promotion board, that his career isn’t going anywhere.  He gets the idea, albeit after much wasted time by the individual and the institution. Then, he either leaves, or is stuck in a meaningless job, running out the clock until retirement.

Just as important as talking to subordinates is a superior’s internal dialogue.  Regularly informally assessing one’s subordinates and counseling accordingly helps ensure that one is actually being honest with himself as well as with the person being graded.  It’s easy to click on some grades on a fitness report and shoot it downrange.  It’s a lot different to prepare and give an honest assessment of an individual to his face on a regular basis.

Almost every human has the same initial bias towards other people.  People tend to like people who are like themselves.  A leader with a tough-guy persona likes tough guys.  An analytical leader with a meticulous personality will encourage those of the same bent.  Evangelicals like evangelicals.  Old-school hard drinkers like those with The Glenlivet in their desks.  A superior with the courage to talk with his subordinates will learn to see beyond window dressing and into whether that subordinate is effective, whatever his personal style.

Almost as importantly, telling a person his strengths will encourage him to do more of the same.  If he has weaknesses, one has to decide if they are worth discussing.  If they are, and you tell him, he will likely improve.  If he doesn’t improve, that informs evaluations, too.  If his failings aren’t big enough to talk about, then perhaps they shouldn’t be counted against him on an evaluation.  This external dialogue with the person evaluated leads to an internal dialogue in the evaluator.  The process of preparing for a counseling serves to turn a gut feeling into a more honest quantifiable judgment.

If not for yourself, do it for your service.

In the military, everyone is expendable, from a private to a general.  As Kansas sang many years ago,”all we are is dust in the wind.”  But for a small group of people, our rifles could have been held by any number of other people.

For most leaders in the military, their legacy to the institution lies not in what they do, but in the people they leave behind.  Those people will only be positively affected if their leaders choose to get past their own laziness and engage with their subordinates.

We can collectively choose for our legacies to be either be a group of mediocre leaders, no better than those who preceded them, or we can choose to make our successors better than ourselves.  That is the measure of our service.  Not end-of-tour medals.  Not inspection results.  Just as parents are judged by the success of their progeny, military leaders are judged by the units, and the leaders, they leave behind.

If not for your service, for your people.

By filling out a junior’s evaluation, you are determining the course of his career, and perhaps his life.  You may be deciding whether the military continues to receive that person’s services.  That should be enough to persuade you to man or woman up and give someone a blunt assessment, for well or ill.

If that’s not enough, think of every toxic senior leader you’ve ever seen in the military.  A better person could have been in that toxic leader’s place, if only someone had given another promising young leader the right rudder steer early on.  That toxic leader might have gotten the right guidance when it could have mattered.  Someone fell short on his duty to his subordinates years ago.  Don’t let that person be you now.