The greater a sought-after change in organizational behavior, the more buy-in leaders must attain to make the change stick successfully. How does a leader get buy-in? By sharing information openly, listening to and incorporating feedback, and trusting others to implement new ideas in the way most palatable for those within their distributed spheres of influence.
I wrote late last month about how the Air Force’s important effort to overhaul its Enlisted Evaluation System (EES) was compromised by a mangled rollout employing too much opacity, evasiveness on key details, and an overly orchestrated conversation rather than a genuine give and take on the merits of a new process certain to impact everyone.
That article attempted to channel and articulate deep-set misgivings within the enlisted force about the use of a scripted, analog roadshow to introduce the new system.
“To educate airmen on how this new system is going to work, top Air Force leadership has launched a worldwide briefing tour. Three teams of six or seven experts, including Chief Master Sgt. Brandy Petzel, the chief of enlisted force policy, and occasionally personnel chief Lt. Gen. Samuel Cox, will tour at least 91 Air Force facilities around the world through the end of July, and the first two briefings were held June 11 and 12 at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and Bolling.”
Many NCOs (and commanders) have understandably been rolling their eyes at a process that expects too little of them and trusts them even less. They’re responsible for making the new system work, and they want to understand it fully before the time comes to actually operate within it. That means having a chance to see the new forms, understand the guidance on how to use them, and up-channel questions early enough that there’s time to get answers while they’re still incorporable. Sending 21 people on a shoe-leather tour to “educate” 317,000 is farcical, and airmen know it.
In apparent response to that recent criticism, officials changed course, releasing (albeit clumsily) a video and set of briefing slides explaining things in more detail. That release was an important step forward, and it indicated a kind of responsiveness we’ve too seldom seen from the current cohort of senior leaders.
However, the news is not all good. Documents obtained by JQP clearly show that officials never had any intention of transparently fielding this new program, which will impact the career of every enlisted bluesuiter and exact new supervisory requirements on most officers. Instead of an open, energetic dialogue to move the service from the old system to the new, officials opted for a carefully planned and scripted influence operation to manufacture the consent of the force.
Hiding intent and purpose from teammates is not the path to effective organizational transformation. In fact, it destroys trust, which is the most basic ingredient in any relationship and probably the most important pillar of leadership. But in creating a calibrated, controlled rollout plan, complete with Public Affairs Guidance (PAG) approved at the highest levels, the Air Force opted for an elaborate sales pitch rather than a plan for change.
The eleven pages of PAG crafted to roll out the new EES and promotion process, shared at the end of this article, raise a number of questions, including, but not limited to:
Why did the Air Force feel the need to control this information at the highest level? Does it trust subordinate commands, commanders, and NCOs? Why did it limit audio, video, and photo recording of roadshow briefings and instruct attendees to refrain from talking about briefed material with their workmates? Why is the PAG marked “not for public release” even though it’s unclassified? Did anyone consider that by trying in vain to control this process rather than manage the size of its inevitable public splash, the service might actually fail to communicate with enough force and breadth to raise awareness, achieve buy-in, and make changes stick?
That’s not every question that could be asked. It’s just a collection of trailheads. The PAG itself provides many more.
Whatever the answers to the many specific questions raised, it’s fair to say senior officials are developing a general credibility problem — the sort that can make achieving anything, and especially something this strenuous and significant, impossible to achieve. Credibility suffers when there is a noticeable gap between what is said or implied and what is done. That gap is developing into a chasm under the current leadership.
When asked during a recent Air Force Times interview what he thought the trickiest part of the EES rollout would be, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said:
“Communication is always the trickiest part. What we have to do is be very open and transparent, which I think you see we are being.”
Cody’s words were published on June 21st, which is after the date of the PAG published below. In other words, he knew that the service wasn’t being fully open, but was in fact employing a carefully scripted effort to share with airmen only what it was deemed they could handle, and only when officials thought the time was right. That’s not transparency. Most NCOs would refer to that as playing “I’ve got a secret.”
In a Facebook exchange a few days later, Cody came closer to acknowledging what was really going on when he said:
“The biggest challenge here is consistent feedback….every Airman has a different opinion on what we should do … [w]e haven’t shared the form publicly, but we’ve shared it with others at every step and have made changes along the way.”
In other words, Cody is concerned about personnel officials getting overwhelmed with feedback, and that’s the real reason for sharing it only with a select few. The problem with this approach, of course, is that the tiny group lucky enough to have glimpsed the new process and given their input may not be representative of the larger force, and their inputs may end up warping the process in ways that create resistance among the masses.
While Cody’s concern about information overload is not irrelevant, it seems odd he wouldn’t trust the chain of command to filter and consolidate feedback, choosing instead to cut out the great middle and collect input directly from a random few. NCOs left out of the loop fairly conclude that they’re not trusted to handle and relay things. In the short term, this makes them distrustful of the new system and maybe even a little resistant to it. In the long term, it could cause them to stop investing in being effective communicators, given that senior officials will only bypass them and go directly to their desired mouthpiece.
In any case, Cody can’t have it both ways here. Something is either transparent or opaque, whatever the reasons, and in this case he’s saying the former and exhibiting the latter.
One of the more pernicious side-effects of a propaganda effort like this is the way it becomes an engine for inauthentic rhetoric. Senior officials stop actually talking from their own minds and consciences on an issue and instead simply draw from the authorized company line. When airmen hear the company line, they know it, and they immediately tune out, knowing they’re hearing safe talking points instead of anything useful. Take, for example, a recent response from the Air Force Personnel Center to a question registered there about the new EES:
“Our experts shared that the only difference for Airmen who are not TIG/TIS promotion eligible, is those Airmen will not receive a promotion recommendation. All Airmen receive a performance assessment. Rating consideration should be the same in all circumstances. Look for specific information on this topic and others in the coming months on myPers. We appreciate your feedback.”
Such manicured prose reeks of careful vetting. It’s not how airmen talk to one another, or how they should. But it’s how officials respond when they’re chained to official guidance on how to think and what to say. How distressing that we find ourselves counting the ways in which airmen are limited in thought and speech on the even of Independence Day, which stands for the right to self-determine in the ways that effectuate liberty. Airmen fight for that right for others every day, yet have it subtly infringed by their own purported teammates using the tools of official authority. That’s shameful when you step back and think about it. Of course, the Air Force has sunk to a new low in this regard, using its Public Affairs function to tell airmen how they should think and talk about Independence Day itself:
Recent company line statements from Maj. Gen. Peggy Poore and Lt. Gen. Sam Cox look like essentially direct lifts from this scripted influence op rather than the unguarded views of either officer. They demonstrate that everyone is thinking and talking alike, which means no one is really thinking or talking. In the end, a given leader’s perceived freedom from intellectual and practical constraints is a much more important source of influence than his or her coherence with an unseen but sensed influence campaign. How this gets missed in the modern Air Force is continually mystifying, but the fact it does get missed is something that should concern everyone who cares about an effective national defense.
Sometimes, keeping score is important. Evaluating the tone set by senior-most leaders is a good reason to occasionally review the record.
In June of 2014, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James was asked the following question by Military Times reporter Oriana Pawlyk:
“Secretary James, my question deals with transparency and communication that you have with your Airmen. For about three years now the Air Force has been putting force management guidelines and personnel announcements behind government access on the web site. Once this information comes up to the public, [it becomes apparent] there is not really any sensitive information that is tied to these announcements. Would you consider posting this information on an Air Force public access web site to be more readily accessible to Airmen? Or how is the Air Force working to be more transparent with this information with Airmen?”
“We have had, as far as I remember, as far as I understand it, for some time now, this information on [public websites]. What’s been difficult is I think in the earlier days it wasn’t easily accessible. In other words, a lot of people didn’t know where to find it, you had to go through a bunch of clicks to get there, and so in more recent, I’ll say the last few months, I think we have improved the accessibility of it, meaning it’s right there and you can’t miss it anymore.”
“I think what you’re talking about Oriana, is there is, as you say, behind the government firewalls, if that’s the correct word, they will send out messages. Like the personnelists will send out message to other personnelists in the field about how to code people. I mean it’s highly technical execution type things for the personnel world. It’s not the macro level information about downsizing or the different [career fields] that are going to be affected … [i]t’s the type of thing that only people who are coding in information in the personnel world would be interested in. As far as I understand it. But you know what, since you’re asking I’ll go back. I figure I can get to that government access stuff. I’ll look at what it is and see if it’s something beyond that.”
Now, let’s not pretend the Secretary had a handle on this answer, because it’s pretty obvious she didn’t. Her response sounds confused and out of touch. That said, she made a commitment of sorts in this response — to go back and make sure that things weren’t being held behind a veil that didn’t need to be.
Give the existence of an eleven-page, non-transparent influence operation developed to carefully meter information to the field on a fundamental matter of personnel policy, it’s clear that either she did not follow up and ensure transparency on personnel policies, or that if she did, her effort was not effective. She seems to want openness in personnel matters, but her Air Force is doing something very different.
Why does any of this matter? Well, aside from the fundamental reasons already stated or implied here, there’s also the matter of minimizing confusion, which is best done by giving people information rather than holding it back. Human nature is to invent ideas to fill important vacuums, and in the absence of the new Enlisted Performance Report (EPR) form, the grapevine is running amok with fabrications.
Even senior officers have gotten into the game, with Gen. Mark Welsh and Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly advancing in separate statements the idea that volunteerism will not be dispositive in enlisted promotions. This is at odds with a leaked version of the new EPR form, which included a block evaluating “whole person concept” factors such as participation in volunteer activities. It’s also at odds with Cody’s own insistence that:
“To be clear, we’re not walking away from the Whole Person Concept. We must remember that we are all part of the Profession of Arms and being part of a profession means we’re expected to do more than strictly our vocation.”
If the form and accompanying guidance were public, confusion would be instantly neutralized. Absent open communication, a blaze of rumors continues to grow, threatening to make a dumpster fire out of the whole program before it sees the light of day.
In response to a question I asked him online on June 25th, Chief Cody said:
“There are no secrets. We’re personally presenting the information to as many Airmen as possible in a forum where they have the opportunity to ask questions and get clarification.”
Well, first of all, that’s just not true. The expensive roadshows championed by Cody during a time when travel budgets have been slashed and the service is flush with modern communication tools are reaching perhaps 5-10% of the enlisted force, with attendees unable to relay what they absorb to their peers. They’re also unable to ask questions in some cases because of the length and careful scripting of the presentations. This makes Cody’s response factually problematic.
But that’s not all that’s wrong with it. Turns out there was a secret. That secret was a deliberate influence operation designed and approved by senior officials and restricted from release to airmen for reasons of control rather than valid classification.
While JQP can’t do much to compel Cody and the Air Force to knock off the impotent roadshow scheme, cease with the “dribs and drabs” approach, and release the final version of the EPR forms that will be used in the new process, we can try to put an end to the needless game of “we’ve got a secret” being run by senior officials. It feels like doing them a favor, since this kind of chicanery only serves to hurt their ability to lead airmen effectively.
In that spirit, here are the full eleven pages of the Air Force’s influence plan, offered without further comment. Read, share, ask questions of your chain of command, and force the system to achieve the necessary clarity and broad awareness to succeed in this important reform effort.