Social psychologists John R. P French and Bertram Raven identified six power bases leaders draw on to influence individual or group behavior. One of these bases—reward power—is the ability and authority to shape behavior by offering (or withholding) rewards for doing what is wanted or needed. Rewards can be further classified as impersonal (raises, promotions, medals, etc.) or personal (receiving praise or affection). As naval leaders, we have a variety of reward power tools, but they lose their impact if we misuse them.
Compare the ribbon racks of officer and enlisted Sailors serving in World War II or Vietnam with those of today. We have drastically increased our use of personal awards. Pull a senior officer or master chief aside and ask what they see and you will hear the same feedback. End-of-tour awards are so prolific that not being given one sends a signal that you have not done your job.
Some of this “growth” represents the increased influence and capability of lower-level leaders. In general, however, it signals we have become overreliant on personal awards as a leadership tool. How did we get here, and how might we restore the standard of “meaningful and true” to our personal awards?
We have overdelegated award authority, and commanding officers are overusing this reward power. When I was a young Sailor, my commanding officer did not have the authority to approve a Navy Achievement Medal—that authority was held at the immediate superior in command level, with quotas and with summaries of actions required for these awards. These business rules ensured commanding officers and their command award boards made certain their award submissions merited the recognition.
Secretary of the Navy Instruction 1650.1H provides clear guidance to submitting authorities on the intent of a given award. As noted in the policy background of one award, “The value of an award is that it is given only in cases where it is clearly deserved. Preserving the character and meaning of awards can only be accomplished if originators of award recommendations adhere to the policies and standards prescribed.” But many leaders seem unwilling or unable to adhere to the spirit of the standards.
The proliferation of Navy Achievement Medals also has caused a devaluation of flag letters of commendation and commanding officer letters of appreciation or commendation. In addition, when front-line supervisors do not use the full extent of the reward power they have, such as “atta boys,” and instead rely on command-level awards to recognize their people, they devalue the impact of their own power.
We have overadjusted policies to recruit and retain Sailors based on the prevailing millennial “profile”—particularly, the perceived need for millennials to be reassured that what they are doing is okay. Our ribbon racks appear to be getting very “me” (personal award) heavy when compared to the number of “we” awards and decorations, at the expense of teamwork and forceful backup. When everyone is told they are special, it gets hard to tell who really is.
Advancement processes heavily influence the overuse of reward power. Well-intentioned leaders strive to “help” their people advance by using award points to boost their promotion opportunities. This serves the interests of individuals and makes command leaders feel good, but it damages our Navy-wide standards by shifting focus from core competency. Personal awards should be decoupled from the promotion and advancement process. Pride and the ability to tell a story when asked about a medal or ribbon are the reward for the action or body of work that merited it and should be the true measure of that reward power.
Personal awards should be reserved for performance above the standard, not simply for doing your job or as a hedge toward advancement success. Our current approach, while feeling good in the short term, is unhealthy in the long term. We should examine our current award model and reestablish a strong standard of reward power.