And the winner is…
Around 2017, the Air Force held an “open idea competition.” The premise was simple and fairly brilliant, in theory at least: anyone could hop online and submit an idea that they thought would help bring about substantive change in the force. Further, anyone in the forum could browse through the hundreds of ideas that had been floated and vote on them. I, and a few of my Air Force colleagues, submitted ideas relating to officer performance feedback, specifically the suggestion to implement some sort of system in which subordinates could assess their superiors. I italicized the last part for all the military folks reading this. If you are, you know that, generally speaking, feedback and performance assessments in the military flow in one direction: downhill (if you’re a veteran, you surely know what else “rolls downhill” in the military ;-). Regardless of whether or not you are in the military, you’ve assuredly seen this phenomenon before: the proverbial “golden child” who is on the career fast track because they’ve awed their superiors; all the while being terrible leaders because they were abusive, or inept, or negligent, or any combination thereof. Eventually, these people are promoted, leaving a wake of stupefied subordinates behind thinking “how did that guy get promoted!?” Inevitably, the follow-on thought of these now-slightly-more-disenfranchised subordinates is oftentimes “oh, if only his boss knew the real story…” So, essentially, my idea suggestion was introducing that concept: implement a system in which a superior’s boss does hear about how a person is treating their subordinates. If you are reading and digesting this concept now, I am going to venture a guess that you fall into one of two categories (based on the responses I received to my idea suggestion):
Category 1: Your reaction was: “hell yes we need that!”
Category 2: Your reaction was (with teeth gritted): “oooh, I don’t know…sounds like an instrument of mutiny…”
These are generally the responses I received, simplified for easier reading here. People from Category 2 expressed fear that this feedback system could be weaponized in order to carry out vendettas and “take out” leaders and commanders. We’ll get back to this in a minute, but for now, I’d like to digress back to my days as an Inspector General…
As an IG, one of my responsibilities was to go around the base and inspect every unit on it. Generally, we would have a team of technical specialists poking and prodding around things trying to find deficiencies in various areas. My role was to assess the command climate of the unit. I did this by examining the technical aspects of the unit’s mission as well as interviewing people and simply asking them how things were going. It was a simple yet effective methodology – I could tell almost immediately if a unit was in good shape or not and 9 times out of 10, that was a direct reflection of whether the commander was doing well or not. At the end of the inspection, I would sit down with the commander and talk through the findings. These discussion went typically one of two ways:
Debriefing 1: I provide feedback and the commander, armed with a stack of documentation and rules and regulations, tries to out-lawyer me
Debriefing 2: The commander takes the feedback, thanks me and my team and shuttles me out the door
After a handful of unit inspections, I quickly came to this Catch-22 conclusion: commanders of units that are leading well didn’t really need feedback, however, the commanders that desperately needed the feedback couldn’t / didn’t want to hear it. This brings me back to my “Air Force Idea” suggestion and the reactions I received to it: if you are a good leader to your people, you want to hear constructive feedback from them, good or bad, and you don’t shutter at the notion of your people telling your boss what they think of you. Conversely, if you know you are a “scam artist leader” who has enjoyed success simply because you have consistently placated / fooled your bosses in the past, the thought of your people telling your leadership the god’s-honest truth probably mortifies you.
My Air Force Idea submission did not win. It received a fairly mixed-bag of reactions, as you can probably imagine. Nevertheless, I remain a fan of 360° feedback in any setting, military or otherwise, and I am convinced it would do any hierarchical organization good if it were implemented because phonies would be weeded out: subordinates would expose the scammers well before they could rise to a position in which they could do any harm.
Oh yeah, the end of the story. The winner of the competition? The idea that was anointed by the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force as the thing that would most substantively change the direction of the Force and lead us into a brave, new world: a new duty uniform.