You Can't Fool the Troops

By Captain Owen West, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve

Fundamentally, the services are trying to measure how well leaders develop their units, and somehow to discern what their individual capabilities are. Usually, how well a leader performs is best determined by listening to his peers and those he leads—precisely the sources ignored by the evaluations. Peers and subordinates should be brought into the evaluation process. The effect will be powerful: behavior will improve, morale and combat effectiveness will rise, and ultimately, there will be a change in the makeup of senior leadership.

360-Degree Feedback

The inclusion of peer and subordinate input in performance evaluations—360-degree feedback—is sweeping the business world. Corporations and researchers now agree that the best information on the flaws and strengths of leaders come from these two groups, and for obvious reasons:

  • First, studies show that less than 25% of an individual's work or management effort is seen by the boss. In a military that prides itself on decentralization and junior initiative, this percentage certainly is lower. Clearly, peers and subordinates are armed with better information.
  • Second, rather than a single person playing judge, the peer/subordinate system acts more like a jury. If the goal is to get a picture of the "whole officer," peer and subordinate input are required.

According to the Compensation and Benefits Review, 12% of Fortune 500 companies in 1992 were using 360degree performance appraisals. Today, more than 25% of those companies solicit input from subordinates and peers, and the trend is upward. The system not only gives evaluators a clearer picture of the leader but also sparks the leader to improve. "Self-awareness skyrockets," says Carol Norman of DEC. "Unlike with supervisors, employees can't hide in 360-degree appraisals because their peers know their behaviors best."

The responses can surprise—and even sting—but the insight is beneficial. Fortune magazine recently reported that 35% of the leaders given subordinate and peer reviews were surprised at the comments. Because of its inherent hierarchy, military percentages would be even higher. There is a large group of officers who simply do not know what kinds of leaders they are. They need to find out.

Most notably, personnel research indicates that leaders who were seen as challenging the status quo and encouraging subordinates' independent decision making usually were rated low by their superiors but high by their subordinates and peers. In information-age companies, subordinate input validated their leadership and bolstered their careers. As a vice president of Capital One says, "In my former company, we paid lip service to decentralized, rapid decision making but never rewarded the people who did it best. Top-down evaluations simply aren't perceptive. The 360-degree system highlights the truly independent thinkers, and we're a better company because we identify and reward them."

Military Application

The Army and Marine Corps already recognize that subordinates and peers provide remarkable insight into the leadership capabilities of their personnel. Peer ratings in Ranger School occur after each phase and are so powerful that the bottom one or two Rangers often are dropped from the class. At Marine Security Guard School and Drill Instructor School, semimonthly peer evaluations provide information on character, crucial because of the nature of the billets. At Officer Candidate School and The Basic School, peer input is held in extremely high regard and is a major factor in screening candidates and assigning military occupational specialties. In addition, it has proved to be a strong indicator of future success. As a former Basic School platoon commander says, "Squad peer evaluations were the single best way I could monitor and predict the performance of lieutenants."

The question thus becomes, Why hasn't the military adopted this system? An officer's primary function is to lead and develop his subordinates. Who better, then, to give feedback on that leader's capabilities? There are officers who are rated highly because their singular focus is up the chain of command. Personal loyalty is critical in combat yet we have a system that allows officers to advance who have scant sense of loyalty to those below them.

Each service could design its own peer evaluation system to meet its specific needs. Pilots, for example, might be reviewed mainly by other pilots in the same squadron. Whatever the specifics, the goal is to have several people review each officer.

In the corporate world, individuals enter their appraisals anonymously, and their evaluations then are sent electronically to a professional service that analyzes and enters the data on the manager's evaluation. The analysis is a single paragraph that includes the breadth and variation among the comments and how often certain traits are cited.

For the military, a Marine company commander's anonymous review panel, for example, might include the first sergeant, gunnery sergeant, platoon commanders, and fellow company commanders. A platoon commander would be reviewed by his fellow lieutenants, his platoon sergeant, and squad leaders

Reporting seniors may either concur with the peer/subordinate evaluation submitted or add disclaimers. For example, one might add: "I concur that Lieutenant Smith demands much from his sailors, but that is because he has high standards, and I dispute the claim that he overworks them and is never satisfied." Or, "Lieutenant Jones's peers claim that he is unorthodox and dangerous; however, I view his actions during live-fire attacks as creative and intuitive."

On balance, consider the value provided when the battalion commander or ship's captain learns that his favorite junior officer uniformly has been criticized by his reviewers. He would be provided superior new insight that today proves elusive, but if he sees little value in the opinions, he can simply ignore them. The rating choices still are the province of the reporting seniors.

A Counter to Careerism

We have, in my view, too much careerism creeping into our officer corps.... Officers who worry more about themselves and how they are going to get ahead than they do about the people they are privileged to lead. General Kelley spoke to officers for three years on this topic. We let him down and obviously haven't done enough about it. –General A. M. Gray 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps

Marine Corps Doctrine Publication-6, Command & Control , stresses that in combat, subordinate Marine commanders will take initiative in accord with commander's intent: "subordinates must be able to act without instructions. Our warfare doctrine emphasizes . . . exploiting low level initiative." In reality, at the battalion and Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) levels, the degree of freedom allowed subordinate leaders varies enormously. In general, senior commanders are encouraging of decentralization, but the number of exceptions is not trivial. A substantial portion of infantry officers are "control freaks" and exert extraordinarily centralized control.

In part, this is because the system rewards accordingly. If every task that is measured by external observers is done well, the fact that there is low morale, scant initiative, or skepticism about the combat sense of the commander has few ways of becoming known. Over control can work well for a commander: minimizing subordinate initiative also minimizes the risk of mistakes. For example, a fleet commander expresses concern about drinking on liberty, and in response, the amphibious ready group commander orders all Marines and sailors back to the ships by 2230. There are no incidents. The senior commander is congratulated—and 2,500 Marines and sailors are penalized.

It used to be that combat was the criterion—the badge of excellence—by which servicemen could and did measure themselves. Today, however, there is scarcely anyone on active duty who fought in Vietnam, much less in Korea or World War II. In the absence of the satisfaction of having performed well in the crucible of combat, too many professional officers are focusing on rank as the central measure of self-worth and accomplishment. The danger is greatest just when the ranks of flag officer are within reach. This is when officers are holding billets where they can exercise tight control. Sometimes, the more anxious they are about their careers, the tighter they pull the leash on those below them.

Extreme control from the top extends into operational matters. Today, many squad leaders are hesitant because they haven't had sufficient time in billet to develop cohesion with their squad members. This causes the lieutenants to keep the squads tucked in close; which in turn limits the company commanders' options for maneuver; which leads the battalion commander to think in terms of maneuver only by his few companies.

Decentralized command and control will remain just a theory until two changes are made. First, we must increase stability and responsibility at the squad leader level, yielding time for the squad leader to sharpen his skills and act independently and with confidence. Second, we must change fitness reports. Some battalion and MEU commanders—overly focused on the fact that they hold career-critical billets—exhibit little faith in the initiative or common sense of their subordinate officers and noncommissioned officers. Based on what corporations have learned, allowing the collective judgment of peers and subordinates to be a fitness report input would improve morale, cohesion, and operational flexibility. Changing input to the fitness report will change output in the field.

Officer Evaluation as a Counseling Tool

Peer and subordinate input also make the officer evaluation a more effective counseling tool. The current argument that counseling occurs year-round—thus eliminating any need for the evaluation to provide guidance to help officers become better leaders—doesn't hold for two reasons. First, many reporting seniors do use the evaluation as a counseling tool because the power of the report ensures that the session will hold real significance. Second, we do not have a system in place whereby subordinates and peers can participate in the growth of senior military leaders. A wealth of information is passing us by.

Counseling today often is inaccurate because the reporting senior addresses the officer's leadership capabilities absent any input from those being led. We often hear an officer at a change-of-command say, "Sailors, I work for you" or "Marines, I am just a temporary caretaker of this unit. You are the customers." Yet at no time do we offer these "customers" any formal avenue for feedback.

Some officers argue that subordinates and peers would have ulterior motives that would taint the rating system. Subordinates have a limited view of the necessities of shaping a unit and may be overly critical of tough orders. Evaluations would become popularity contests, sacrificing mission accomplishment; peers would tend to rate their friends higher and their competitors lower, placing a premium on personal relations.

There is truth in these reservations. Group opinion may conspire unfairly against an officer in some cases, but not often. The system relies on the professionalism of our officers—both commissioned and noncommissioned. In all the services, integrity and fairness are built in from the first days of training. The standards by which subordinates judge their seniors are nearly uniformly held; the services' historical emphasis ensures this. There is inherent tolerance for a wide array of leadership personalities. Subordinates understand this.

Mission accomplishment is the main concern, and we need subordinate and peer input to best achieve it. If the services adopt the 360-degree evaluation format, current merit-based systems will be more accurate and effective, and leadership and morale will be the beneficiaries. Captain West graduated from Stanford Business School in June and is trading commodities for Goldman, Sachs and Co. He served most recently as executive officer of 1st Reconnaissance Company.

Captain West graduated from Stanford Business School in June and is trading commodities for Goldman, Sachs and Co. He served most recently as executive officer of 1st Renaissance Company.


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