The U.S. military is steeped in traditions, some that predate even the signing of the Declaration of Independence. There are certain customs and courtesies that become second nature for members of the military, such as saluting commissioned officers, appropriately addressing fellow members, and properly raising and lowering the American flag. These acts often become so habitual, service members perform them reflexively.
There are other unofficial rituals, however, that can be as poignant as a hand salute or as compulsory as a facing movement. One such ritual is the collar check.
When walking across a Coast Guard base, along a cutter pier, through an airplane hangar, or into a crowded galley, one inevitably finds oneself subjected to the collar check, often many collar checks at once. This ritual involves a quick glance at the rank on another Coast Guardsman’s collar, weighing that rank against one’s own, and hastily formulating a suitable greeting and any necessary follow-up. The collar check aids Coast Guardsmen in correctly addressing one another, but it can have problematic, long-lasting implications. An individual’s rank insignia should convey his or her place in the service hierarchy, to guide customs and courtesies. It also delineates responsibility. Unfortunately, the collar check often becomes a mind-set and exacerbates a greater problem embedded in military tradition: the gap between officers and enlisted members.
In the Coast Guard, there is a functional divide between officers, who serve as generalists, strategy and policy architects, and higher-level managers; and enlisted members, who are technical experts in specific fields. Both groups fill different yet equally necessary roles and must coexist and work harmoniously to achieve the service’s missions. Military tradition has always drawn a stark line between officers and enlisted members, although in some areas, such as educational background, the line has become blurry.
Respect Enlisted Education
The 2018 Department of Defense demographics report revealed that while only 18.4 percent of enlisted military members held associate’s, bachelor’s, or advanced degrees, this marked a notable increase from 12.2 percent in 2010.1 Despite this upward trend of individuals enlisting with college degrees or earning them while serving, enlisted personnel often are collectively mislabeled as uneducated and uncultivated.2 Such stereotypes drive wedges between personnel, generate self-doubt, and impede synergy and mutual respect among service members. Moreover, disregarding the educational background, skills, and prior experience of the enlisted workforce is one of the most egregious oversights made by military leaders. But how can supervisors leverage the skills of enlisted members if they are hidden?
Unearthing the skills of enlisted members, no matter how junior the members, should be at the top of every leader’s agenda. Many enlisted members use educational benefits to pursue college degrees while serving, and although their supervisors often help facilitate these endeavors, there appears to be a lack of interest in the resulting experience and skills. Yet, the fields in which many enlisted personnel are achieving certifications and degrees are directly intertwined with the Coast Guard’s missions: emergency medicine, engineering, communications, linguistics, law enforcement, and computer science, to name a few. Often, leaders fail to follow up on their crew’s educational pursuits. This harms both the members and the service at large; junior enlisted members may be excluded from higher-learning opportunities, such as the Coast Guard’s advanced education program, and the service loses out on specialized knowledge and expertise.
While it is incumbent on junior members to assert their intelligence and talents whenever possible, their leaders are responsible for drawing out service members’ skills and empowering them to apply those skills to advance the mission. In addition, the service should elevate education in the advancement process. For example, the Coast Guard’s enlisted advancement system should factor academic achievement into the servicewide multiple by allotting points for completed degrees and certifications. This incentive might boost the enlisted workforce’s enthusiasm for education-related goals and help diminish harmful stereotypes.
360° Performance Evals
Another area in which the line between officers and enlisted members can and should be blurred is performance evaluations. In the Coast Guard, the evaluation process greatly affects both officer promotions and enlisted advancements, albeit in different ways—officers vie with all equal-ranking peers in a time-bound competition, while enlisted members have more control over when they compete with peers in their job field. Both groups, however, must rely on feedback from their supervisors and top-tier leaders to propel them to the next rank. Although high-level appraisal is essential, military members typically only receive official, structured feedback from above, not from below, which is an oversight.
Implementing 360° performance evaluations would help officers and senior enlisted members, specifically those in supervisory roles, to better grasp the effects their managerial decisions and techniques have on their crews. Broadening the scope of professional critique would provide deeper insight and inspire increased transparency among leaders and their subordinates, which would ultimately strengthen crews’ internal communication skills. Subordinate feedback should be added as an official component of every supervisor’s professional development and could potentially become another official layer of performance evaluations. Requiring leaders to consider the perspectives of their subordinates may further motivate them to create open, constructive work environments in which all team members, including junior enlisted members, are treated with respect.
Offer Integrated Training
In his 2020 State of the Coast Guard address, Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz stressed the importance of a positive, inclusive culture in developing strong leaders at all levels, not just in the service’s upper echelons.3 Military services seek to grow leaders through formal training, practical experience, and professional development. In the operational realm, where officers work and learn alongside enlisted members, much of this unfolds organically. However, the training programs geared specifically toward leadership development rarely simulate real-world, diverse environments. Most courses instill values such as courage, honesty, altruism, and assertiveness in all burgeoning military leaders, regardless of rank. Yet, officers and enlisted typically hone these qualities separately, strictly in the company of close peers. While this may provide a socially comfortable atmosphere free of rank-related barriers, mixed training is invaluable in that it teaches individuals how to navigate barriers.
The Coast Guard does offer blended programs, such as Incident Command System training, in which members of many professional backgrounds unite to practice crisis communication. Trainees often are asked to attend in civilian attire, eliminating rank (and collar checks) from the equation. Personnel with more hands-on crisis-response experience—often junior enlisted members—are encouraged to lead discussions and guide their teammates. This blended approach also enables individuals to work collaboratively, form positive bonds, and initiate mentorships. Adding leadership development courses of this nature would open new lines of discourse among officers and enlisted members, facilitating important conversations that could produce stronger leaders.
When used consistently, internal communication techniques can fortify connections and transfer organizational values to all service members, inspiring the will to continue serving. Social science research has consistently shown that open channels of communication, routine feedback, and information-sharing activities increase individuals’ engagement in their work and raise their motivation to excel.4 Conversely, when officers and senior enlisted members unnecessarily barricade channels of communication from junior members, they inhibit lower-ranking personnel from gaining a more holistic understanding of crucial operations and offering useful insight. An enlisted member’s first time attending a planning or strategic meeting should not be after his or her tenth year of service; yet, the ever-present collar check often prevents them from taking a seat at the table.
Making room for enlisted members requires a more progressive mind-set, one in which the collar check is merely used as a quick reference point, not as a permanent stamp. After forming an initial impression, leaders should make a conscious effort to see individuals, their contributions, their leadership qualities, and their potential through clear eyes. Respecting the education and skills of junior members, incorporating subordinate feedback in performance evaluations, and offering more diverse training environments can help erode antiquated stereotypes and strengthen internal communication, thus shrinking the gap between officers and enlisted members. Individuals from both groups must examine their own words and actions to gauge how they can help shift the culture of thought and bridge the gap, better empowering each other to achieve collective goals and excel in service.
1. U.S. Department of Defense, 2018 Demographics Report: Profile of the Military Community.
2. Tom McCuin, “Myth Busting the Military: Service Members Are Uneducated,” ClearanceJobs, 1 June 2018.
3. ADM Karl Schultz, USCG, “State of the Coast Guard Address,” U.S. Coast Guard (2020).
4. A. T. Vercic, and N. P. Vokic, “Engaging Employees through Internal Communication,” Public Relations Research 43, no. 5 (2017): 885–93.