According to the 2014 Navy Retention Study, Sailors are more likely to leave uniformed service because of a perception of increasingly high operational tempo, poor work/life balance, low service-wide morale, and a waning desire to hold leadership positions. Nearly 40 percent of Sailors polled believe that those in charge are doing a poor job. Over half of the respondents believe that leaders do not care about the input of subordinates nor do superiors hold themselves to reasonable levels of accountability. Although pay and retirement compensation remain the greatest motivators to remain in uniform, it is often a lack of job satisfaction that drives Sailors to leave the service. Job satisfaction is difficult to build when there exists distrust of leadership.
Distrust in the Navy often begins at the recruiting station. For those looking to pursue a career in the Navy, the recruiter is the first authority and representative of the Navy they encounter. Interactions with a recruiter ultimately set the tone for how an individual perceives our organization. There are countless stories of young Sailors who were misled, or outright lied to, by their recruiters. Eventually these misrepresentations become known, and discontent is generated. While it is understandable that there are certain quotas that must be met in recruitment, excessive emphasis on the numbers facilitates an environment where recruiters are compelled to falsely represent the Navy, or worse, overlook the deficits of potential recruits, in order to sign them. More honest and knowledgeable recruits will produce more trusting and invested Sailors.
Similarly, distrust is propagated during training from Recruit Training Command at Great Lakes to the Navy’s various “A” and “C” schools. Those selected as recruit division commanders (RDCs) are considered shining examples of naval professionalism. They are experienced, have acquired qualifications in their designated rates, and receive high marks when evaluated by their superiors. These leaders exemplify characteristics that, ideally, recruits would hope to emulate. Recent changes, however, are undermining the RDC’s ability to lead honestly and build trust. The call for more sensitivity training, for example, seems to take precedence over cultivating capable and knowledgeable Sailors. Consequently, these instructors seem to fear critique. This perception calls into question their ability to efficiently correct behavior, which is critical when molding Sailors early in their enlistments. New Sailors witnessing such reservations receive the message that:
• Those in charge do not back or support their personnel.
• Junior Sailors have the power and leverage to manipulate their superiors.
Once in the fleet, the notion that the Navy has a “zero-defect mentality” further contributes to an atmosphere of distrust. Although life in the military comes with many benefits, it also comes with a unique set of stressors in conjunction with the day-to-day pressures that one would encounter in any profession. Believing that one’s career can end as a result of any given mistake impedes the emotional investment needed to engender a long-term commitment to the military. Zero-defect thinking undercuts the development of engaged Sailors who exhibit pride and enthusiasm for their work and the Navy. This perceived zero-defect culture also deters Sailors from reaching out to their superiors when they need help—help that in many cases is readily available.
Given their experiences from the recruiting station to their initial assignment in the fleet, it should not surprise anyone that the Navy Retention Study found that nearly half of Sailors do not trust their leaders. Changes are needed to empower effective leaders to recognize the value of the subordinate-supervisor relationship and display an ability to develop and inspire individuals to reach their full potential. Serving in an atmosphere that fosters poor leadership, however, one can hardly expect Sailors to stick around longer than necessary, and even if they do, that their work ethic and mission dedication will be of high caliber. Recruiters must be honest; trainers must be allowed to correct; and leaders in the fleet must allow subordinates to learn from honest mistakes while holding themselves accountable to the same high standard they expect of others. By building trust at every stage of Sailor’s career, we will combat negative perceptions of leadership that plague today’s Navy, and increase retention of our most committed and productive Sailors.