JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA –
As an organization, the military reflects every aspect of society. Collectively we are Sailors, Soldiers, Guardsmen and Airmen from all walks of life. Our societal cross section and diversity are what makes us the World Class organization we are. The fact that we mimic societal norms was made crystal clear to me recently during a conversation with a family friend. The specifics of his experience are not relevant but I will summarize for context: Over the course of the academic year at his son’s school a group of students began to congregate at a certain location between classes. They came together for reasons any group of teenagers would. However, over time, the group grew larger and more aggressive in standing their ground. As a result, they were impeding foot traffic, preventing other students from making it to class on time, if they had to pass through that part of the school. The school staff did not take prompt action to correct the situation. The questions posed by this young man were twofold and easily translate to military life: Why did the students think their behavior was acceptable and why didn’t organizational leaders address the problem? My short answer: establishing standards, exercising/delegating authority and holding individuals accountable is hard.
In the military, we often equate the word “accountability” with non-judicial punishment (NJP). Although I would submit it is much more than that. At its most basic level, accountability is as simple as engaging each other in conversation. For example, if a co-worker is late to work, someone should ask what happened. That one, simple interaction will highlight the expectation for our people to be at work on time. The second effect of a discussion such as the one I described is reinforcement throughout the workplace of the expected level of performance within the organization – establishing a standard. Something as simple as a questioning attitude can have a long standing impact on an organization. In an environment where individuals are not held accountable, the standard of behavior will decline. The change occurs slowly, over time but the end result is a low performing organization where personal opinions or desires override established standards. If you, as a leader, find yourself using NJP as your primary enforcement tool to ensure standards are being met, your leadership team has failed.
How do you improve performance and avoid this pitfall? Start by establishing standards and expectations; followed closely by empowering leadership at all levels to take action to uphold those standards. Trust your subordinates to do the right thing. Once a decision is made, as long as it is sound, you should support their decision and not undermine their authority.
As members of the United States military, we are part of one of the finest organizations in the world. In our culture, we are all military professionals who treat each other with respect and we have a code of conduct we are expected to follow. Most importantly, each one of us is entrusted with the responsibility to uphold standards and hold each other accountable for our actions. Standards, authority and accountability are key tenets of our culture.