FORT RUCKER, Ala. (June 27, 2019) - As leaders of Army organizations, our focus tends to fall on planning for and executing the various missions we must accomplish to stay proficient and ready as a force. The result of this natural instinct, however, is that we may sometimes fail to see issues that are not readily apparent within our formations. These potential problems are often deeply ingrained within the organization's foundation and frequently pre-date current leadership, with negative habits and tendencies stretching far back in the organization's history. While commanders are "temporary hires" in the sense that civilian employees and some Soldiers will outlast any given leader's tenure and, therefore, own the organization's foundation, there are several steps we can take to foster a more positive and effective workplace environment, both now and in the future.
In my mind, there is nothing more important in building an effective workplace than promoting civility at every level of the organization. In two separate articles for Harvard Business Review between 2016 and 2018, Dr. Christine Porath, an associate professor of business at Georgetown University, discussed the costs of incivility at work. After 20 years of surveying workers in a variety of industries across the United States, she found that 98 percent of respondents had experienced rude behavior at work, while 99 percent had witnessed it. (1) Porath believes incivility degrades employee performance by interfering with information processing, short-term memory, and cognitive ability. (2) I, and I am sure many of you, have seen and dealt with the negative effects of disrespect firsthand.
It is not enough to simply expect civility - the change begins with you. If you are not modeling civil behavior yourself, you cannot expect civility to take hold and grow within the organization. According to Porath, leaders can both display and encourage civility by:
- Articulating the organization's values and setting expectations for respectful behavior;
- Defining what civility means to them;
- Giving employees basic training in civility;
- And coaching employees on active listening, giving and receiving feedback, and dealing with difficult people. (3)
At the end of the day, promoting civility does not have to be an academic exercise. You can accomplish it through an easy "hi" or "good morning" when you meet someone in the hallway. Walk around and talk to the people who work for you, Soldiers and civilians alike. Subordinates often feel far removed from the command team, and you taking time out of your day to simply ask how things are going will go a long way toward setting a positive tone that proliferates through the ranks. Also use your "town hall" updates to discuss your personal philosophy on civility. Taking just a few minutes to talk about respect with your entire workforce present will have a big impact in a short amount of time. As with any other training mission, promoting civility is about making the most of the time you have and providing opportunities for the maximum number of correct repetitions. Your workforce will soon "get it," and your successors in command will thank you for it.
Ensure information flow
Communication is the number one issue I have encountered as a leader at every level of command. Employees want to be informed, and open communication helps build trust in leadership. There are several tools for gauging communication in your organization, including command climate surveys and the Army Readiness Assessment Program. Then, once you have an idea on areas to improve, brainstorm some simple ways to keep the information flow open within mission limitations. Some strategies I have found particularly effective during my time in command include regular battle rhythm events like all-hands updates and working groups for key mission areas; informal sensing sessions where employees are free to discuss their concerns and propose solutions; monthly email messages to the team outlining upcoming events or organizational milestones; regular emails to subordinate leaders, who are free to share with their teams, that provide guidance on expectations and project deadlines; and open invitations to the workforce to travel with me, by request, as practical to local engagements. There are many venues you can use to share both your thoughts and the organization's goals - start by picking one you feel comfortable with and build communication from there. The end result will be greater buy-in from your employees and a more engaged organization overall.
Articulate the organization's goals and philosophy
If your organization does not have clearly stated goals and an overarching philosophy, your employees will not know what they are working toward. In my personal experience, "work with a purpose" is a critical element of job satisfaction. There is no motivation in coming to work every day thinking what you do makes no difference. The Army is a big machine with countless and varied missions, and there is room for all of us to have an impact. Your communication plan should reiterate your organization's mission, goals, and objectives and outline your personal vision for accomplishing each. This step will not only give your employees purpose in their jobs, but also improve the information flow we often find lacking. Understanding what we do and why we do it, as well as continually refining how we achieve our goals, means no work is ever done in vain.
Encourage ownership of one's path
Over the years I have come to believe, through both personal experience and observation of those working around me, that the three primary elements of happiness on the job are money, location, and flexibility for family time. However, it is a rare occurrence that you get all three, especially as a Soldier who goes where the Army says. This is where owning one's decisions and, therefore, their life's path, becomes valuable. Everyone gets discouraged at various points in their careers, but leaders can help their Soldiers and even civilian employees by encouraging them to accept the decisions they have made and how they led to where they are in life, while also exploring how they can change their path if they want. The change might mean more education, separating from the Army earlier than planned, or in the case of civilians, leaving a longtime job they have become very comfortable with. But we should always counsel that changing paths often involves trade-offs. Again, you will be very lucky to get all you want out of a job - most of the time we have to settle for most of what we want.
Promote a strong sense of self-worth
Promoting a strong sense of self-worth is really a culmination of the four factors outlined above. When employees are treated with civility and respect, feel "in the know" through unfettered communication, have a firm understanding of the organization's mission, goals, and objectives and how they fit in, and have taken ownership of their unique career paths, they will feel more valued and, in turn, more confident in what they do every day. Emotional intelligence in the workplace is a fairly old concept but remains relevant in organizational theory. The idea that taking heed of emotions at work, rather than simply thinking with our brains and expecting others to do the same, might seem counter to the traditional way our Army does business. However, multiple studies have shown that organizations using emotional intelligence to create a high-quality work environment have more trusting, confident, and loyal employees. (4) By simply showing your employees you value them and their work and encouraging direct supervisors to do the same, you are building a more emotionally intelligent organization and nurturing self-worth within your employees. This does not mean everyone will get a promotion (and leaders should discuss clear paths to career progression with their subordinates on a regular basis); rather, accomplishments will be recognized and celebrated, and employees can feel proud of themselves and their work, regardless of rank or grade. Likewise, it is important to acknowledge the feelings of those individuals who cannot overcome the fact their boss is not exactly the person they want them to be - even if that boss is you. We cannot make everyone happy all the time, but we can counsel our chronically unhappy employees that their self-worth is not determined by what we or anyone else thinks of them or their work. Again, by showing we care even when we disagree, we can help all our subordinates move forward from job-related malaise. It takes deliberate effort for commanders to instill a sense of self-worth in their workforce, but the payoff is great.
Building an effective workplace will not happen in a day, nor will you complete the task in the short time you have in command. But you can start the process for those who follow you and those you leave behind, leaving a positive, lasting legacy for Soldiers and civilian employees to come. Both our current and future generations deserve our very best efforts - it starts with these simple steps today!
1,3 Porath, Christine (January 2018). Make Civility the Norm on Your Team. Harvard Business Review, retrieved May 22, 2019.
2 Porath, Christine (April 2016). An Antidote to Incivility. Harvard Business Review, retrieved May 22, 2019.
4 Cooper, Robert K. (1997). Applying Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace. Training & Development, 31-38, retrieved May 22, 2019.