Top General Says Air Force Morale Got “Lost in the Shuffle”

Air Force Times recently released an article detailing its vain attempts over the past 18 months to persuade the Air Force to release the results of its 2015 Climate Survey, which was touted at the time as a major initiative to assess the morale of airmen during a turbulent moment for the service.

Questioned at a public event about the service’s failure to release the results, Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, who is responsible for all of the service’s personnel programs, said the following:

“To be frank, that got lost in the shuffle. There’s nothing controversial in it. It just got lost in all the things that we’re doing.”

This is an answer that raises a host of troubling questions, chiefly how in the world the service’s top generals could manage to let what should be their number one priority — the morale and welfare of airmen — get “lost in the shuffle.”

But Grosso’s further comments are even more quizzical. Pressed on the contents of the survey, she claimed she hadn’t seen the information since November of last year. There are a number of deeply concerning issues with this collection of statements. 

First, how can Grosso know the contents of survey report are not “controversial” if she hasn’t seen them in eleven months and doesn’t recall enough detail to comment intelligently?

Second, and more importantly, how can she lay claim to responsibility for the service’s manpower if she hasn’t bothered to review the results of its flagship morale survey in nearly a year’s time? How is she making assessments about morale and welfare in the field if not by reviewing such reports?

The impression given by the general’s remarks is that morale is just another issue for her staff to deal with … on par with annual barbecue competitions and revisions to protocol instructions. Just another tasker for someone to route for signature. If she really hasn’t bothered looking at this survey for eleven months, it’s fair to conclude that she — and by extension the Air Staff — don’t give a damn about it. By extension, they don’t give enough of a damn about improving morale.

But wait. There’s more.

After making claims about the contents of the report she says she hasn’t reviewed, Grosso downplays its importance by implying airmen are being “over-surveyed.” Maybe, she tacitly proposes, this report isn’t in sync with other survey efforts. This is the sort of political hackery we typically see before bad news comes out, at which point we’ll be told it’s not as bad as it looks because airmen had been over-surveyed and took out their frustrations on this particular survey.

So, just to summarize: the Air Force administered a climate survey in March of 2015 – a year late – and then ignored the results. The Chief of Staff at the time, Gen. Mark Welsh, never pushed to see the results and never demanded that his personnel team finish staffing the report. He didn’t make an effort to take care of his airmen, which makes him a failure on the issue that matters most.

When asked about service morale in a Senate hearing a year after the climate assessment, Welsh reached into thin air and declared morale “pretty darn good” without reference to the evidence, which he and his staff had buried under a pile of trivialities. This made him a laughingstock with his own people, and made it clear he and the staff were either out of touch or willfully blind to debilitating morale issues at unit level.

When a new leadership team took over, they chose to stay on the same negligent path rather than lay the survey bare and grapple with its contents. A survey report created using taxpayer funds was thus allowed to sit, aging into increasing irrelevance. This is waste at best and leadership malpractice at worst.

Now we’re told that the results will be available by the end of the year. In a business where seconds count … morale is so important to these generals that it’ll take them another three months to simply read the survey results and permit their release so the service can have a conversation about post-drawdown morale.

This kind of foot-dragging is unacceptable. It’s a continuation of the Welsh-era failure to deal in truth rather than trying to manipulate perceptions. It’s this kind of dishonesty that has destroyed morale, creating survey results likely so horrific that service leaders have worked to bury them long enough so that when they are finally released, they’ll be able to claim the results are too old to be considered valuable.

By the time the results are released, the Air Force will have gone four years between climate assessments. This is also unacceptable. Any squadron or wing commander even 10% this wide of the target would expect to be fired, and should be.

It’s a Cardinal sin of leadership to pretend you care as a means of manufacturing consent. When the service found itself in the midst of a crisis of trust and confidence after mismanaging an excessively severe, self-inflicted drawdown, it rolled out this survey as a way of showing it cared and was listening.

But it turns out that was a lie, and like most lies, it now requires multiple additional untruths to conceal. It would be bad enough if the Air Force were to admit it cared so little or had become so defeatist about morale that it misplaced its most important survey on its most important issue. But no one believes for a second that it got “lost in the shuffle.”

The curtain has been pulled back on the Air Staff’s political approach to leadership, and airmen see right through this stuff. They’re not going to buy Grosso’s nonsensical excuses for a second. Airmen will rightly conclude that while the A1 is plenty inept, that’s not what explains this survey being pitched behind a filing cabinet for a year and a half.

Airmen will conclude from Grosso’s comments and the surrounding circumstances that the survey was buried because it contains inconvenient truths that would have further humiliated an already embattled senior leadership team as they conducted delicate budget negotiations with Congress. Negotiations upon which the future of coveted modernizations programs were dependent. They will further conclude that the service has once again placed its own institutional image ahead of the well-being of its people, and failed to tell the truth and do the right thing on a key people issue.

Unless Gen. Goldfein and his team want to add insulting the intelligence of airmen to the injury of burying this survey, it’s time to cease the transparent doubletalk and release the results post haste. Only when we’ve conceded that morale is not “pretty darn good” can we start to rebuild it … something Goldfein seems genuinely committed to doing.

On the other hand, any rebuilding done on a foundation of lies will be certain to crumble.

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