Editor’s note: This is the latest article in “Rethinking Civ-Mil,” a series that endeavors to present expert commentary on diverse issues surrounding civil-military relations in the United States. Read all articles in the series here.
Special thanks to MWI’s research director, Dr. Max Margulies, and MWI research fellow Dr. Carrie A. Lee for their work as series editors.
One day at work, I overheard a conversation between two DoD civilians and their military supervisor. The officer asked who was attending an upcoming meeting. In a resigned tone, one of the civilians said they weren’t planning to attend. Typically, skipping a meeting is cause for celebration. But the reason given by one of the civilians caught my attention. She glumly stated, “we others aren’t wanted by the military in that discussion.”
In addition to its almost two million uniformed members, DoD employs approximately 890,000 civilians—making it the fourth largest employer of civilians in the world. The past twenty years of combat supported by DoD civilians has reaffirmed the necessity of a dual civilian/military national defense workforce. Moreover, rapid advances in technology have increased the need for civilians who provide much-needed technical skills in fields such as space, cyber, medical, and logistics. While some occasions may call for more exclusively civilian or military efforts given specific skills, going forward, most DoD organizations will likely see increases to integrated workspaces.
Despite this growing need, embracing civilians within military culture, traditions, and organizational structures remains a challenge. The 2022 Defense Business Board report found that “civilian development is not seen as a priority within the DoD culture.” There is a less discussed reason for civilian workforce integration failure: the cultural phenomenon of othering that occurs within military formations. A simple way to understand othering is as an in-group/out-group dynamic based on specific characteristics. Often, othering groups establish a hierarchy based on their purported, and self-identified, superiority.
When these microproblems arise, military and civilian leaders’ feelings toward one another often harden into a view that the “others” are obstacles or problems. The insidious consequence of othering comes when these biases begin to degrade the relationship between military leaders and civilians. The lack of trust between parties then transforms skepticism into dysfunction.
To holistically understand the problem, we must begin by examining how microlevel and early-stage integration failures at lower levels of the military establish a basis for othering. While there is no panacea for integrating distinct cultures, changes at the microlevel present a vital opportunity to establish positive and meaningful interactions and foster uniformed military members’ understanding of DoD civilians and contractors.
Unlike many of their civilian counterparts, all senior uniformed leaders have spent their careers within the rigid military structure. Thus, perceptions formed at tactical units, on small bases, and in offices that contain junior personnel provide insights into how factors may set in motion a series of long-lasting negative feelings between groups—and drive othering. The military needs a first step to improve this integration. That first step is shifting the mindset on what it means to integrate civilians into military organizations. The recommended shift is not organizational or policy-oriented, but cognitive. Before workforce integration strategies that promote training or career development can hope to achieve success, the military culture must undergo a shift in who is considered part of the in-group. Fixing the relationship between the two parties will improve cohesion in support at the junior level and reinforce civilian control at the senior level.
Understanding the Civ-Mil Landscape for Workforce Integration
Civilians have long been vital to the DoD workforce. They have a longstanding record of military workforce augmentation and are integrated into every level of the military, from small unit–level organizations who conduct missions in the field to the highest levels of the military that create internal policy and inform strategic decisions. Indeed, the ratio of civilians and contractors to uniformed service members is at near-historic highs. DoD has approximately 890,000 civilian employees and another approximately 390,000 contractors. Meanwhile, the uniformed military totals around 1.3 million active duty personnel.
The most integrated DoD workspaces, like those in the National Capital Region, often find ways to bridge their civilian and military workforces. As an example, the workforce of the Defense Intelligence Agency is split between 74 percent civilian and 26 percent military members. As a result, DIA devotes significant amounts of time and energy to creating workforce integration among its personnel. It accomplishes this integration through exposure and training during onboarding, maintaining offices dedicated to facilitating integration between groups, and promoting workplace collaboration. Other DoD entities in the National Capital Region, such as at the Defense Logistics Agency, which has twenty-four thousand civilians and just eight hundred military personnel, prioritize workforce and culture integration through detailed strategic planning.
Unfortunately, unsuccessful workforce integration often happens in many DoD organizations outside the beltway as the workforce ratios skew toward uniformed members. One reason this dysfunction happens is that at its core, the military values assimilation, often at the expense of integration. While integration brings together distinct elements in a complementary way while allowing the retention of unique qualities, assimilation sees the dominant culture subordinate the other. But civilians cannot—and should not—assimilate.
In fact, not assimilating is one of the many benefits civilians provide to the military. Civilians offer military organizations unique advantages, such as longevity and expertise in a specific field, which are more challenging to attain in the uniformed military. But perhaps most important, civilians offer military units and organizations diverse perspectives and worldviews from their distinct cultural upbringings, practices, and experiences that add depth to decision-making.
Yet, many military leaders struggle to understand that they cannot force civilians to assimilate. The predictable outcome is that differences between the two sides create an in-group/out-group dynamic. A lack of understanding between groups often crystallizes into deeply entrenched negative perceptions toward the other side. Simply put, we have an othering problem.
Take, for example, something seemingly superficial like work attire, which can cause othering. On the one hand, the military’s use of uniforms is an important unifying symbol of collective identity and adherence to specified standards. On the other hand, civilians adhere to a separate set of criteria for workplace attire that allows for more individuality. Yet this physical difference also serves as a point of friction for rigid, inexperienced military officers who struggle to connect with someone simply because of how they dress and are reticent to recognize the value proposition of integrating individuality into organizations that equate conformity with loyalty.
Military and civilian communities’ conceptions of time serve as another significant source of othering. One example is the differing views on work hours or duty day. On the one hand, the US code directs specific rules for civilian government employees’ work hours, and leaders who want a government civilian to work extra hours must authorize overtime or comp time. On the other hand, while there are rules that govern military member health and welfare, leaders can direct military members to perform certain work, such as guard shifts, at any time, day or night, based on mission requirements. Different sets of distinct rules in an integrated workspace result in an unnatural sorting based on work scheduling constraints, and often lead to a wrongheaded perception that civilians do not care about the mission or unit as much as the military. The frustration of military leaders pressed for mission accomplishment is understandable, and there may be civilian employees who attempt to manipulate the process. But the frustration could also come from a lack of experience and knowledge of the government civilian work culture, not because their employees or coworkers are lazy or uncommitted.
Negative interactions with the perceived other may have an outsized impact because these interactions are formative and create a group narrative. At its core, othering is part of the human condition. It also connects to people’s desire to belong to a group. If one group sees itself as distinct from another (or better), that distinction influences the intergroup relationship dynamic. Moreover, perceptions formed by lived experience can have a powerful and anchoring effect. Once created, it is hard to shift or adjust those perceptions. As a result, simple misunderstandings or differences can turn into collective mistrust.
Negative perceptions can create a host of problems. When individuals form problematic perceptions, fissures fester and create a toxic and sometimes hostile working environment. A search of Reddit using the keywords “DoD civilians” is all it takes to uncover the vocal animosity from some military members toward the other. And while this may not be a representative sample of the general military population, it is still important to consider the causes of such vitriolic speech and sentiments. These voices speak to dysfunction within the workforce. What starts as small pockets of dissatisfaction with the culture can and does grow into a dominating overarching narrative.
If the narrative that civilians and the military do not like to work together solidifies, the next generation of national security professionals may pass on serving. Without a doubt, a loss of recruitment for civilians or military because of othering creates a national security dilemma. As DoD modernizes, especially in technology, gaining and retaining talent becomes vital. A 2021 report by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence found that the talent deficit poses the most significant challenge to enabling technological dominance. Yet, in 2023 only one service, the Marine Corps, expects to meet its recruiting goals. DoD will likely need to expand the civilian workforce in response to this declining recruitment, particularly within key technical positions. Surveys indicate that members of Generation Z prioritizes personal well-being, work-life balance, and diversity when contemplating where to work, more than previous generations. As a result, the value proposition to the next potential workforce must consider work culture equally crucial to other drivers of recruitment. With fewer Americans eligible to serve in the military, augmenting the workforce at the tactical and junior level with civilians shifts from a benefit to a mission-critical requirement.
Furthermore, the implications of the challenges mentioned will not stay tethered to the tactical level. At the strategic level, cultural challenges such as mistrust of the other also manifest. Increasingly, experts sound the alarm over the relationship between the military and civilian leadership. Indeed, just recently, twenty-one former senior defense officials signed an open letter reaffirming the core principles of civilian control of the military. Additionally, these specific instances of mistrust echo a broader, nationwide decrease in trust in the military.
Mindset Shift at the Unit Level
While neither civilian nor military cultures will ever completely align, proper integration requires acknowledgment that exclusionary frameworks degrade cohesion. Simply put, it’s okay to be different. But if both sides can accept the other as part of their respective in-groups, those superficial differences become less important. However, changing minds is hard to do. Negative perceptions formed early create an anchoring bias that could harden in a profoundly personal way for many individuals. Furthermore, change must occur in a culturally viable way to stick.
Can less experienced military leaders embrace, rather than accept, cultural change in their organizations? Absolutely, they can. Doing so will require top-down support and emphasis to adopt the perspective change. As senior leaders prioritize addressing integration at the junior level, military leaders must simultaneously look inward. The future workforce appears increasingly immune to performative acts. Thus, they will watch leaders’ actions rather than listen to their words.
Military members can gain early, easy wins by rethinking everyday interactions with their civilian counterparts. A 2021 study by an Army officer serving in the Army War College Fellows Program, “Effectively Integrating Army Civilians in Tactical Units,” discovered that many Army civilians felt ignored during large gatherings focused on military issues and members. The proposed solutions, such as increased communication and deliberate inclusion of civilians for organizational events, highlight how the military can improve its approach to civ-mil interactions by prioritizing the human experience.
Empathy and humility allow military leaders not simply to acknowledge the perspectives and needs of workmates as valid but, more importantly, to embrace the unique value they create. Moreover, uniformed service members should recognize that their civilian counterparts will closely watch interpersonal interactions to see if they are welcomed or simply tolerated. A mindset shift must occur before actions or policy prescriptions can succeed.
These changes must occur at the small-unit level. Indeed, the evidence suggests that top-down modifying actions, such as training, without unit-level buy-in will result in failure. An example of this phenomenon comes from the effectiveness of diversity acceptance following training. A 2019 Harvard Business Review study found that many commonly used diversity training techniques failed to yield meaningful and lasting results. Similarly, already established civ-mil integration training requirements in the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act or the 2020 Army Civilian Implementation Plan may underperform or fail if forced upon an audience that does not buy in.
One way to address this buy-in issue is to prioritize integration for junior and mid-grade officers in tactical or operational units. This targeted approach should seek to preempt the misunderstandings through education and socialization that lead to negative perceptions. One promising model for this comes from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Using the Small Steps model, the ODNI learned that incremental and small-scale approaches work much better than large mandated programs for building workplace diversity. So ODNI developed a simple program focusing on exposure through small events like coffee and small-group or individual-level interactions to help build diversity resilience.
Military leaders can similarly develop targeted strategies at their organizations to improve civ-mil integration at more junior levels. Again, areas benefiting from technical expertise likely provide ideal avenues for engagement. But implementing solutions without first acknowledging and addressing problematic mindsets practically guarantees failure.
The new workplace dynamic in DoD organizations will increasingly see uniformed and civilian personnel working closely together. While improving, work is needed to address the current othering perspective adopted by many. The military can create a new generation of workers, both military and civilian, who grow together and embrace, not simply accept, each other’s differences. For the military, the first step is quite simple: it needs to shift its mindset to push junior leaders to integrate, not assimilate, civilians into our workplaces.
James Settles is an active duty Army strategic intelligence officer assigned to the Joint Staff. He holds graduate degrees from Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the National Intelligence University.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. George B. Davis, US Army