Air Force Snapshot: the Grapevine Effect


Something was shared with me that is worth reviewing for the admittedly modest learning value it houses. The intent here is not to shame anyone or even so much to lament systemic ills. It’s simply to show how organizations work, and how they sometimes upend themselves.

This is a pattern that repeats itself constantly on Air Force bases across the planet.

An email recently originated from Space Command Headquarters (AFPSC/CC) directing all personnel who hadn’t already done so to complete the required face-to-face component of their recurring Suicide Awareness training.

The email was re-transmitted by Wing Headquarters, which added that completion of training was an AFSPC/CC “high priority” and made attendance mandatory unless an individual was on leave or TDY. Group leadership then re-transmitted to the wing-level message to squadrons.

One particular squadron forwarded the email to each of its flights after adding that completion of the training was “the #1 priority for AFPSC/CC.” This was an overstatement. More on that in a minute.

One particular flight then forwarded the following to each of its members:

“According to our records, you have not completed the Wingman Day/Suicide Prevention Training. This is currently the AFSPC/CC’s #1 priority, and everyone needs to attend the face-to-face training. Again, this is mandatory training which takes priority over any other mission requirement. Unless members are on leave or TDY, they MUST attend this training.”

And just like that, we go from a relatively sanguine, routine directive to verbal hyperventilation, complete with a bout of all-caps, needless repetition, and total unmooring from the original premise.

This is the dark magic of the chain of command — which should be understood mainly as a chain of communication. A message that starts its journey in one form ends it in another. A simple directive to complete a task becomes amplified enough to cause heart palpitations, literally trumping the mission.

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This sort of thing is unsurprising to anyone who has ever served in a military organization, and in this case, the impact is relatively muted. But it’s still significant. Simply by showing interest in the completion of a task, AFPSC/CC gave rise to a situation where the mission is taking a back seat to ancillary training. On-scene leaders in such situations find themselves powerless to employ judgment in balancing the mission against other requirements. Flexibility is lost. Of course, in this case, the squadron in question did much of the amplifying itself, foot-stomping that “any other mission requirement” was secondary. An unfortunate choice.

Being an organizational leader means your communications will be taken as authoritative by echelons below. It's important to consider how your words will be interpreted, and to bear in mind that your subordinates will pay for your communication missteps.
Being an organizational leader means your communications will be taken as authoritative by echelons below. It’s important to consider how your words will be interpreted, and to bear in mind that your subordinates will pay for your communication missteps.

I’ve written frequently about the paralytic effect of attempting to solve problems unitarily, employing bureaucratic methods that pretend a cookie-cutter solution to anything involving 317,000 people is a good idea. Through this ill-advised approach, what starts as an idea to help people ends up as just another obligation on an already over-filled to-do list.

This is another illustration of the phenomenon. None of the emails above tout the value or importance of the training. None discuss how it might save lives, and therefore justifies temporary mission disruption. Someone somewhere cares more about being able to say everyone was trained than they care about the actual training itself. That comes through in the endpoint communication, which orders airmen to participate in their own well-being because it’s a requirement with a bureaucratic expiration date, rather than because it is constructive for them and their units.

This is anathema to getting them interested and immersed in the ideas that might actually prevent suicide. It’s the core reason the “wingman concept” has lost all relevance with the rank-and-file. Airmen see it as a silly conflation of mutual support with too many social problems, resulting in endless mandatory jib-jab in lieu of the resources and mission unloading that would actually reduce stress rather than having it compounded with more mandatory appointments. 

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But even if this micro example doesn’t effectively demonstrate those macro problems, it still illustrates a few useful ideas.

It’s a great example of how the Big Boss’s words will be amplified at every waypoint on the journey to an airman’s mind. Sometimes, this actually mangles original intent and/or makes claims on the Big Boss’s behalf that are utterly false. The squadron commander in this case declared Suicide Awareness training to be General John Hyten’s #1 priority. This is incorrect. Hyten himself said in April that “Winning today’s fight is my first priority.” That sounds rather “missiony.” Yet this commander says “any other mission requirement” is a mere nullity obscured by the towering shadow of Today’s Big Thing. The pressure to generate desired results sometimes warps communication in such strange ways.

It’s also a great example of what happens when we cultivate a crop of leaders who know they’ll be judged by bureaucratic measurables rather than mission results. This has been a slow-burning dumpster fire for a while now, and is finally working itself into a healthy blaze. Unit leaders in this case are so strongly incentivized to check this bureaucratic block that they’re willing to short the mission and carelessly invoke the specter of 4-star authority to coerce unquestioning compliance. This is pretty much the opposite of what we should want, but it’s the reality of today’s Air Force. Mission excellence is taken for granted, and performance is thus differentiated by looking at everything else — especially anything quantifiable (yes, I’m looking at you, PT scores). Anything with a metric attached to it is a potential to look less competent or less “all in” than others, and thus becomes an object of obsession. A less pejorative but equally destructive impulse entertained by commanders is to simply make claptrap go away quickly, by whatever means necessary. This catalyzes otherwise good commanders to be heavy-handed in mowing down bureaucratic queep, much to the chagrin of people tired of having their priorities constantly redefined.

But most of all, this just demonstrates the nature of directive communication in any hierarchy as hidebound and steeply vertical as the contemporary Air Force. Messages from headquarters are subject to modification on the way down, but no one is empowered to relax their intent, only to tighten it. Given that commanders feel a need to be instrumental in some way, they’ll always be tempted to change something about a message, and they’re only free to do so in one direction. Thus, we end up with unit-level absurdities that began as headquarters-level advisories, with no one to blame for the effect because it grew from the design of the system rather than the peculiar actions of any one participant.

Some refer to this as the “snowball” effect, since it usually results in earlier showtimes, bigger rent-a-crowds, and swollen “voluntold” rosters. I think it’s more aptly described as the “grapevine” effect because of the way the message itself changes. What we see is not just an enlargement of commander’s intent, but often a fundamental change in direction that diverges from intent.

In this case, it’s pretty clear Gen. Hyten did not want ancillary training to trump the mission of Space Command. But that’s exactly what occurred because the grapevine made a malformed, oversized, regurgitated furball out of his words.

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Communication is usually at the root of problems and frustrations in any organization. As a leader, it’s never a bad idea to take a few ticks to think about how your words will be understood, altered, and re-packaged by the grapevine. Depending on which rung of the ladder you occupy, the effect could be significant, and those on the bottom rung will not be free speculate on what they think you meant.

But hey, don’t take my word for it. Here’s a useful demonstration.

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