Focus groups make troops feel more valued

#1
Mr Haughton (I'm not too sure of his correct title; we didn't have such when I was a grunt) has apparently 'suggested [that] senior officers should allow more “forums, debates and focus groups” and “360 feedback”, where troops can rate those above them in the chain of command', according to today's Times. I have a few mixed views on this in a military environment, but with the wide variety of military subject-matter experts available nowadays, feel that he has probably said the previously unsayable. I do wonder why he felt that he should draw 'moral courage' into the statement, though:
“There is a lack of moral courage, I believe, in the army and a fear of confrontation. Some of it is societal. Some of it is because everybody wants to be everybody’s friend, and I genuinely believe it starts in our officer corps.”
This weekend, he said he did not think there was a “systemic” lack of moral courage among officers.
I'm not too sure that there's a direct link between the arguments, although being 'institutionally correct and therefore not to be gainsaid or questioned' has in the past been a clear sign from one or two of my superiors, both in the Army and elsewhere, of personal lack of character.*

*Cowardly bastards, they were.
 
#2
Mr Haughton (I'm not too sure of his correct title; we didn't have such when I was a grunt) has apparently 'suggested [that] senior officers should allow more “forums, debates and focus groups” and “360 feedback”, where troops can rate those above them in the chain of command', according to today's Times. I have a few mixed views on this in a military environment, but with the wide variety of military subject-matter experts available nowadays, feel that he has probably said the previously unsayable. I do wonder why he felt that he should draw 'moral courage' into the statement, though:

I'm not too sure that there's a direct link between the arguments, although being 'institutionally correct and therefore not to be gainsaid or questioned' has in the past been a clear sign from one or two of my superiors, both in the Army and elsewhere, of personal lack of character.*

*Cowardly bastards, they were.
Maybe he needs the moral courage to ask the various RSMs/COs why they cant be arsed to follow his direction on letting adults decide whether or not to wear their sleeves up or down.

Focus groups and other such bullshit are usually successful for minorities who want to buck the system and know that ******** senior officers (desperate to show how modern and right on, that they are) will implement exceptions, everyone else can go **** themselves.
 

Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
#3
Focus groups and other such bullshit are usually successful for minorities who want to buck the system and know that ******** senior officers (desperate to show how modern and right on, that they are) will implement exceptions, everyone else can go **** themselves.
You're just looking at the word and missing the point. He's just observing that people who are pissed off become less pissed off if someone in a position of responsibility listens to why they are pissed off. This is 0900 on Day 1 of basic psychology, most people do it instinctively, business helplines teach it to people in a manual, and it's amazing how many military people simply don't get it. Even people supposedly specifically selected for debriefing and human intelligence type work often have to be taught this, because their first instinct is to shut down the conversation and posture about who is in charge. This is much more common in officers, whether Warrant or DE.

If that someone is a superior who also takes criticism, all the better. The pissed off person might even start to like them and feel better, regardless of whether anything has actually changed. It's a no brainer. Unfortunately, most officers - and it is most, this isn't a reflection on individuals, it's clearly a group-inculcated habit - develop a real resistance to simply listening or taking criticism, because they seem to feel that allowing a subordinate to do so threatens their authority / position. Years ago I actually had a senior Captain say this to me: about to leave my current post, I asked my blokes to give me an 'MPAR' about what I could do better. This Captain (different chain of command) was genuinely horrified and questioned what would happen if blokes started to expect this from "the rest of us". It was like he saw allowing any criticism from below as compromising some kind of herd immunity. I've subsequently seen this kind of attitude in many other officers, over all kinds of situations.

So, actually, while it may sound trite, I think Haughton has hit on a really important point here. If the officer corps widely did what he is suggesting here, I think you and many others would be much more content with the Army.

He's also absolutely right about the lack of more courage, and gets the right kind of moral courage: it's about enabling and encouraging criticism down to up, not the bizarre example that Sandhurst and officers often use where moral courage is criticising a subordinate: that's just called 'your job'. I would go one further though, and say that there is indeed a systemic lack of moral courage. That specifically means that the Army system discourages, in practice, people from showing the kind of moral courage it says it wants and needs, and often punishes them for doing so. It's problem is that it wants this kind of moral courage in key moments (tell your boss that keeping Baha Mousa in a cage is wrong; step in to stop your Sgt shooting that wounded TB; etc), but it doesn't really want anyone to ever exercise or practice that kind of behaviour in smaller day-to-day instances. This is absurd, like expecting soldiers to do a 20-mile insertion on ops, when you've banned phys for their entire careers. Of course it isn't going to happen. If you want people to behave in a particular way, you need to train, acclimatise and let them practice behaving that way. Discouraging the exercise of moral courage in the day-to-day Army, disallowing and discouraging criticism of superiors, making soldiers feel that they have no real input into what goes on above them, then expecting everyone to be paragons of vocal moral courage in moments when the need is dire, is obviously insane. This is why it has never worked, and the Army keeps getting these kind of moral courage failures, where the underlying story behind a big public failure is that everyone knew it was sort of wrong but nobody said anything, and the acceptable response to anyone who did say anything was to shut them up or punish them.

That is a dictionary definition systemic lack of moral courage. He is also right, it does start in the officer corps. Not all officers, but most. There are ones who listen, take criticism, and speak up, but they are few and far between and many of them leave early because they unsettle the herd. I'd suggest that today's "wrong kind of chap" has little to do with school and trousers, and a lot to do with being someone who will speak up and show the kind of behaviours Haughton is recommending here. Mediocre to poor officers who stay quiet survive. Competent to good ones who don't keep quiet end up leaving. That is also a systemic failure.

So well done to Haughton on this one. All the effort and column inches about BAME inclusion, which his boss has focused on, is a political fig leaf that isn't ever going to substantially solve any of the Army's current difficulties. This issue, if seriously addressed, had the potential to transform a lot of the Army's most deep seated problems.
 
#4
Excellent post, @Sarastro
Just to add a small point on 360 feedback. As with the civil service, I'm told the army are piloting this with senior officers, but for me this is upside down. For feedback to be effective, it has to be listened to and changes actually made as a result. For those well into their career, or coming to the end of it, changing one's leadership style or approach is nigh on impossible. 360 feedback should be for those just embarking on their leadership path, the troop/platoon commanders and sergeants - to help set them onto the right path. If you genuinely want to change a toxic culture, you don't start with those leaving in a few years. You write off the current batch, and start afresh with the incoming generation.
 
#5
I worked in a company that did a '360' feedback system, the sample pools being from up, down and your peers.
What a complete waste of time and effort. Although entirely anonymous, if you did criticize your manager, you'd get pinged straight away as he would have selected you to conduct a review and more than likely recognise your language/sentence construction (especially as it was an American company). Over the years, this led to some interesting conversations in social gatherings when drink had been taken.
It wasn't just me, we all felt that it was a useless system so we would scheme to present bland results. Even when we had presented similar critique of the boss, it was ignored and he hated us for it, making the atmosphere worse and him coming up with more stupid ideas to unnecessarily fcuk us around.
 

Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
#6
I worked in a company that did a '360' feedback system, the sample pools being from up, down and your peers.
What a complete waste of time and effort. Although entirely anonymous, if you did criticize your manager, you'd get pinged straight away as he would have selected you to conduct a review and more than likely recognise your language/sentence construction (especially as it was an American company). Over the years, this led to some interesting conversations in social gatherings when drink had been taken.
It wasn't just me, we all felt that it was a useless system so we would scheme to present bland results. Even when we had presented similar critique of the boss, it was ignored and he hated us for it, making the atmosphere worse and him coming up with more stupid ideas to unnecessarily fcuk us around.
This always frustrates me in the 360 argument. Saying that one implementation of an idea is bad does not mean the idea is bad.

There are plenty of systems which address the points you make above. One is not to allow written criticism, but to use gradings (like the SJAR grades) on a multiple choice. One is to make the 360 feedback direct to the boss's boss (so the 2RO in this case). Another, less successful, is to have group feedback sessions moderated by someone else (usually an HR person), although this one has all sorts of problems and would be unlikely to work in the Army.

There are two major points about 360 as an idea which would improve the MS system:

1. It would change the underlying assumptions about what is acceptable. If the Army officially instituted some form of 360 as part of the OJAR / SJAR process, at all levels, it would be a huge institutional signpost that this was acceptable and desired behaviour. Whether that worked for every individual OJAR / SJAR, the wider effects would be tremendous. I'd use as a comparison, for example, the repeal of DADT in the US or the legal acceptance of gays in the British military in 2000. These didn't make any more or fewer in service gay, but they did radically change their everyday experience, because it was no longer institutional policy to discriminate against them. It changed the definition of acceptable behaviour.

2. The real value in the Army's system of 360 is to provide points of comparison. The huge, gaping flaw in the MS system is that it, effectively, only has one eye: that of the 1RO. At a stretch, two eyes (2RO), but we all know that the 2RO is highly influenced and often written by the 1RO. Combined with the up-and-out nature of much Army reporting, this means that a single individual's judgement can make or break a career. In no manpower system is this desirable. The potential for abuse or mistakes is obvious. Grading boards and so on are, at best, weak ways to address this problem, because they are still highly reliant on the initial 1RO report as written, are highly subject to leading and groupthink from the 1 / 2RO, and in any case are often executed very poorly.

360 reporting offers a way to break that cycle, even if done at the simplest level (e.g. slate-a-mate: takes 30mins a few times a year, hardly a massive imposition). If a 1RO's observations and gradings match the 360 observations and gradings, all to the good. If they don't, it is simply flagging a case where more investigation is needed. The additional data is what is important. Single-source information is never reliable, even if every source is 100% well intentioned. Lt rates a Sgt as bottom third but all his Cpls and LCpls think he is awesome? That needs looking in to. I've seen one case where this was really well used in the Army, on a course: if anyone was borderline or lower with the DS (e.g. didn't have a straight up fail, like a mandatory test failure), or if the DS were split, they had taken several slate-a-mates and went to those results. Those results changed opinions in several cases, because despite the myths, the DS don't see everything. Neither do reporting officers.

At present, there is no formal mechanism for this to happen. When you talk to officers about it, they will usually insist that it happens informally through discussion and everything works out okay. Yet almost every single case of severe MS dissatisfaction or mis-reporting I have encountered usually boils down to one thing: there are other opinions out there that are not in the report, but they were either missed or ignored by the RO. It is an inherent flaw of relying primarily on single-source reporting by an immediate superior. It also has the side effect of chilling any moral courage from subordinates, because they are almost certainly a career foul with the wrong kind of officer.

Finally, there is the question of why the Army is quite so resistant to making these kinds of changes to the MS system. The current system stacks the deck almost entirely in favour of officers and ROs, and means they have more control and are less likely to encounter individual problems. Whether or not they think of it in quite those terms, they recognise that 360 reporting is an inherent transfer of power away from them and to their subordinates, which will inevitably create more work and stress. Most are not keen on this. It's the same reason that many officers resisted, dislike and continue to half-ass Service Complaints. Even if they accept that they, personally, may need this kind of redress in future and are not against it in principle, they see that in practice, today, it will mean more work and difficulty. This discourages change. Soldiers, on the other hand, aren't ever going to report on anyone until they are at least a Sgt. It is cost-free for them. Almost all the benefits accrue to them, because they are the majority of the ones reported on. So 360 is a lose for officers and a win for soldiers: it's not entirely zero sum, but it's pretty close. Given that officers are the ones with power to change the MS system, it's not surprising that it is resisted.

Like many of these problems (the same pattern can be seen with military justice at unit AGAI level), the Army seems to be incapable of recognising the fundamental solution. There is a legitimate case that all of this stuff cannot be sustained on operations: there is a military operational need for quick decision making, strict and commander-led reporting and criticism, and unit-level discipline and justice. All that is absolutely true. Conversely, almost none of that applies off operations, in barracks. The Army has developed a system which aims to work on operations, but which causes real problems with selecting and losing talent when used as a long-term peacetime system. The problem is that the Army currently spends 80% or more of its time off operations. The answer is quite clearly a two-track system, one on operations and one the rest of the time, but the MOD seems incapable of executing that kind of common sense.

For feedback to be effective, it has to be listened to and changes actually made as a result. For those well into their career, or coming to the end of it, changing one's leadership style or approach is nigh on impossible. 360 feedback should be for those just embarking on their leadership path, the troop/platoon commanders and sergeants - to help set them onto the right path. If you genuinely want to change a toxic culture, you don't start with those leaving in a few years. You write off the current batch, and start afresh with the incoming generation.
I agree it is upside down, and introducing it at (say) Sandhurst and P2 officer training would be most desirable - but I still think it needs to be a uniform change across the Army. Perhaps that change is initially just for officers / WO, or formal command positions, to make it more manageable. Conversely, any system which isn't 'manageable' at an Army-wide level is going to have to change anyway, so you might as well introduce a streamlined 360 system that will work when used Army-wide. As I said above, it is not beyond the wit of man to design a relatively quick and workable 360 system that achieves modest goals. Just because many 360 systems used elsewhere are unwieldy and subject to abuse, doesn't mean the Army has to do the same. 360 should be an integral part of a total redesign of the MS system, not just an optional extra taken off the shelf and tacked on for looks.
 
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#7
Listening to your troops? Talking to your troops? Leading your troops?

It’ll never catch on.
 
#8
I'm intrigued by the role of the army Sgt major (but really an LE Maj in waiting). Is it test the water for ideas on how to make the army better or just mutter sweet nothings to appease folk or initiate conversation? Regardless, I believe a 360 reporting system would benefit promotion boards. Especially at lower levels. For some posts I believe it should be a democratic vote by selected individuals. Ie RSM selected by the gt Majs he will lead. Maybe throw the rqs in the mix too. Corps/command selected by the rsms and army
maj of the Sgt majors selected by existing le Sgt majors. Occupying this key high ground would allow us to weed out the oxygen thieving facetimers. Once that was inplace I'd look at promotion boards. Pte-lcpl would be made up of more rsms and maybe some Sgt majors. Promoting rubbish out of unit could be prevented by guaranteeing that the new jnco would remain in or return to that unit. Sub-unit ocs could be selected by tp/pl sncos selecting which tp/pl ocsthey wanted to see again and adjts from sub-unit 2ics.
 
#9
360 feedback: fine in theory, but in reality can be a nightmare in many large organisations because it is applied and operated in unintelligent fashion by fcukwits

In my current outfit, it is now limited to senior staff because of the vast amount of time and effort wasted by a bonkers system introduced by the (former) head of HR that enabled cliques to give mutually glowing and wholly unquestioned feedback whilst the slightest hint of negativity from a single source resulted in a visitation upon the recipient and their line manager by the HR Inquisition, most usually in the form of a gormless "HR Partner" with a checklist.

"Mr X is an excellent engineer with a thorough understanding of whatever and is much respected and valued by clients and peers alike. His promotion to Team Leader will much enhance business delivery."

" In March Mr X received a single negative feedback score. Doubts clearly exist therefore he cannot be promoted."
 
#10
Perhaps we'll end up with a denunciation process by where workers can facilitate sacking of unpopular leaders and managers.

One of the good things about having a rank structure based on experience and skill is that a higher rank can ask their lower rank colleagues their opinions or for updates which they'll trust.

Having said that, the UK is really bad at training managers. Investing in better managers is probably going to be more valuable to an organisation than gimmicky 360 degree appraisals.
 
#11
360 feedback: fine in theory, but in reality can be a nightmare in many large organisations because it is applied and operated in unintelligent fashion by fcukwits

In my current outfit, it is now limited to senior staff because of the vast amount of time and effort wasted by a bonkers system introduced by the (former) head of HR that enabled cliques to give mutually glowing and wholly unquestioned feedback whilst the slightest hint of negativity from a single source resulted in a visitation upon the recipient and their line manager by the HR Inquisition, most usually in the form of a gormless "HR Partner" with a checklist.

"Mr X is an excellent engineer with a thorough understanding of whatever and is much respected and valued by clients and peers alike. His promotion to Team Leader will much enhance business delivery."

" In March Mr X received a single negative feedback score. Doubts clearly exist therefore he cannot be promoted."
Agreed, it was very much used as a tool by tools in my last place. I had seen it used to deliberately demotivate individuals, in one case a good bloke left as he felt that no one liked him and his position was comprised.
Staff quickly saw through it and learned to ignore the findings, lest it was something negative that your line manager would include on your annual assessment, he wouldn’t ordinarily have known about.
 
#12
You're just looking at the word and missing the point. He's just observing that people who are pissed off become less pissed off if someone in a position of responsibility listens to why they are pissed off. This is 0900 on Day 1 of basic psychology, most people do it instinctively, business helplines teach it to people in a manual, and it's amazing how many military people simply don't get it. Even people supposedly specifically selected for debriefing and human intelligence type work often have to be taught this, because their first instinct is to shut down the conversation and posture about who is in charge. This is much more common in officers, whether Warrant or DE.

If that someone is a superior who also takes criticism, all the better. The pissed off person might even start to like them and feel better, regardless of whether anything has actually changed. It's a no brainer. Unfortunately, most officers - and it is most, this isn't a reflection on individuals, it's clearly a group-inculcated habit - develop a real resistance to simply listening or taking criticism, because they seem to feel that allowing a subordinate to do so threatens their authority / position. Years ago I actually had a senior Captain say this to me: about to leave my current post, I asked my blokes to give me an 'MPAR' about what I could do better. This Captain (different chain of command) was genuinely horrified and questioned what would happen if blokes started to expect this from "the rest of us". It was like he saw allowing any criticism from below as compromising some kind of herd immunity. I've subsequently seen this kind of attitude in many other officers, over all kinds of situations.

So, actually, while it may sound trite, I think Haughton has hit on a really important point here. If the officer corps widely did what he is suggesting here, I think you and many others would be much more content with the Army.

He's also absolutely right about the lack of more courage, and gets the right kind of moral courage: it's about enabling and encouraging criticism down to up, not the bizarre example that Sandhurst and officers often use where moral courage is criticising a subordinate: that's just called 'your job'. I would go one further though, and say that there is indeed a systemic lack of moral courage. That specifically means that the Army system discourages, in practice, people from showing the kind of moral courage it says it wants and needs, and often punishes them for doing so. It's problem is that it wants this kind of moral courage in key moments (tell your boss that keeping Baha Mousa in a cage is wrong; step in to stop your Sgt shooting that wounded TB; etc), but it doesn't really want anyone to ever exercise or practice that kind of behaviour in smaller day-to-day instances. This is absurd, like expecting soldiers to do a 20-mile insertion on ops, when you've banned phys for their entire careers. Of course it isn't going to happen. If you want people to behave in a particular way, you need to train, acclimatise and let them practice behaving that way. Discouraging the exercise of moral courage in the day-to-day Army, disallowing and discouraging criticism of superiors, making soldiers feel that they have no real input into what goes on above them, then expecting everyone to be paragons of vocal moral courage in moments when the need is dire, is obviously insane. This is why it has never worked, and the Army keeps getting these kind of moral courage failures, where the underlying story behind a big public failure is that everyone knew it was sort of wrong but nobody said anything, and the acceptable response to anyone who did say anything was to shut them up or punish them.

That is a dictionary definition systemic lack of moral courage. He is also right, it does start in the officer corps. Not all officers, but most. There are ones who listen, take criticism, and speak up, but they are few and far between and many of them leave early because they unsettle the herd. I'd suggest that today's "wrong kind of chap" has little to do with school and trousers, and a lot to do with being someone who will speak up and show the kind of behaviours Haughton is recommending here. Mediocre to poor officers who stay quiet survive. Competent to good ones who don't keep quiet end up leaving. That is also a systemic failure.

So well done to Haughton on this one. All the effort and column inches about BAME inclusion, which his boss has focused on, is a political fig leaf that isn't ever going to substantially solve any of the Army's current difficulties. This issue, if seriously addressed, had the potential to transform a lot of the Army's most deep seated problems.
Im not missing the point at all, I'm well aware people fell happier when seniors listen to their gripes.

My point is its nothing new, there are already forums, the problem is the blokes eventually realise that **** all is going to happen, its just a sop to shut them up. How many times do the same complaints go to the soldier magazine? Only for Brigadier Bollocks-chops to answer in a non committal way, nothing changes and in about 6 months someone else will write in with the same complaint.

Of course there is a lack of moral courage, because promotion normally hangs on people keeping their mouths shut. He can bleat on about it all he likes, when is he going to show some moral courage and grip all the RSMs/COs who are ignoring him? Probably never because he's got his eyes on further promotion.

Incidentally all my juniors get the opportunity to say how they feel anytime they like, either at the end of a Troop parade or in private, but then Ive never hidden behind my rank. It will never catch on in the army.
 

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