Air University Review, May-June 1971
Dr. David C. Korten
We cannot meet the challenge facing our free society unless we can achieve and maintain a high level of morale and drive throughout the society.
John Gardner, Excellence.
Rising manpower costs and strength reductions create the need for a new dedication to excellence among Air Force personnel. Such dedication is seldom achieved in any organization, and when it is, it generally reflects careful attention to the design of the organizational experience so that it will encourage and support high standards of personal performance.
Managers of the Air Force personnel system have traditionally treated motivation as primarily a problem of career motivation or service retention. As important as career retention may be, if the individuals retained are not also motivated to accomplish the Air Force mission, they are of little value to the Air Force. Indeed, the Air Force personnel system should be designed to produce not only acceptable performance but excellence in performance as well.1
John Gardner has identified a number of the preconditions to the motivation of excellence in organizations and societies which are useful in reviewing and evaluating some of the characteristics of the Air Force personnel system.2 Gardner observes that there is a continual conflict between those norms of equalitarianism which ignore differential quality in performance and those norms of competitive performance which underlie a concept of excellence. Norms of equalitarianism are essential to maintaining a democracy, to preserving individual rights and values, and to avoiding the malicious destructiveness that can result from ruthless internal competition in an organization. On the other hand, norms of competitive performance are fundamental to the encouragement of individual excellence and the continued vitality of the organization or the society. Gardner maintains that this conflict is healthy so long as an appropriate balance is maintained.
While it may at first appear that the clear hierarchical structure of a military organization such as the Air Force represents a complete antithesis to overemphasis on equality, this is not necessarily the case. As Gardner observes,
. . . a firmly observed hierarchy plus equalitarian relations for those at any given level of the hierarchy combine to limit effective performance. This is the kind of organization in which seniority weighs heavily in promotion, and the chief way to win points is to grow old.3
Equality refers here to equal treatment at any given level of the hierarchy for high and low performers, for the able and less able. The military command structure with entrance only from the bottom—a rigid rank structure and an orderly, nearly uniform progression through the ranks (especially at earlier career levels)-- fits closely with Gardner’s model of equalitarianism. To what extent is this equalitarianism offset in the Air Force by an organizational capability to recognize excellence? Some individuals feel that the stress on equality in present policies is excessive and has led to the exclusion of incentives for excellence. Dr. Jack W. Carlson made the following observations on current military personnel policies in a symposium sponsored by the Personnel Research Laboratory:
. . . increased pay is not usually [he noted the specific exceptions] given for higher levels of skill, higher levels of education, superior performance or relative scarcity of each occupation. Almost without exception, DOD has requested higher across-the-board compensation increases instead of differential pay so as to recognize more fully higher skill and educational levels. . . . Promotion policies are successfully used in the private sector to retain and motivate skilled personnel. In contrast, in the Military Services and to some extent in the Civil Service, promotions are seldom given for above-average performance and for purposes of retention. Promotions are primarily based on waiting for the requisite age and then being promoted along with poorer performers.4
Similarly, a recently completed Air Force study noted:
Under the present system almost all officers are promoted to the grade of captain and proceed to acquire approximately 10 years of commissioned service before they face any real promotion competition.5
Even then, the law allows for 90 percent of eligibles to be promoted to the grade of major.6
These characteristics of the present system are well known to Air Force junior officers. For example, a study of officer motivation found that the young Air Force officer does not associate either advancement in rank or increases in salary with successful accomplishment of his job.7 This study concluded that
In the Air Force it [advancement] appears to have little potency [as a motivator] basically because at the lower ranks advancement is determined primarily by time in service and not how well an individual performs his job . . . If the Air Force is to reap the motivational benefits of this factor, it must permit the individual to perceive the relationship between advancement and his achievements and recognize advancement as a sign of growth on his job and within the organization.8
Antony Jay has pointed out that such a situation is weighted not only against stimulating outstanding performance but also against attracting and holding top-quality talent.
. . . if the corporation is only offering a secure future disguised as an exciting challenge, it is in danger of being overweighted with recruits whose primary concern is the pension plan, and then Gresham’s law will start to operate. The bad drives out the good in management as well as in currency; if a man looks around him and sees people whom he recognizes as less able than himself all doing more or less the same work for more or less the same salary, he will start to think he is in the wrong place. As soon as he sees one or two of them promoted above him, he will know it.
. . . promotions are the one visible, unmistakable sign of the corporation’s standard of values, an irrevocable declaration of the qualities it prizes in its staff, a simultaneous warning and example to everyone who knows the nature of the job and the qualities of its new incumbent.9
The Air Force has acknowledged difficulties in retaining sufficient capable junior officers to meet middle management manpower requirements in the technical and support areas.10 These difficulties are likely to increase as industry increasingly looks to young military officers as an attractive source for meeting its own critical middle management needs.11
Very few objective indices of personnel quality are available of sufficient validity to compare accurately the capability of those officers who voluntarily leave the service with that of those who are retained. However, a recent analysis indicates that the more education an officer has, the more likely he is to leave when free of his service obligation.12 Though not conclusive, such findings suggest that retention is inversely related to the individual’s prospects in the civilian job market.
Some Air Force re-enlistment campaigns seem specifically aimed at those who have the greatest doubts about their ability to compete in the civilian job market, as illustrated by a cartoon from the Andrews AFB (Maryland) newspaper, Gateway, of 24 January 1969.
This is a matter of sufficient importance to merit further study. Additional factors undoubtedly are involved in retention, and advancement does become competitive at the higher ranks. Nevertheless, the greatest number of voluntary terminations from military service occur at the lower ranks, well before the system begins to provide any tangible recognition of merit.
The conflict between equality and excellence is reflected in the Air Force not only in matters of pay and promotion but also in the area of job assignment. Official policy seems to recognize and then ignore the conflict by simply issuing mutually exclusive and contradictory instructions. The Air Force manual on career motivation gives Air Force commanders the following directives.13 With regard to seniority (equality) it states:
Give seniority paramount consideration in assignments. Deviate only when the most unusual circumstances arise and when there is indisputable justification.
It then makes the following statements about recognition of ability (excellence), which appear to directly contradict the policy on seniority:
Keep the troops informed as to Air Force objectives and their opportunity for a career that recognizes talent, dedication, and loyalty. Use to the maximum the energy, eagerness, and aggressiveness of junior officers whose education and motivation exemplify the apex of the Air Force Career Motivation objective. Know your men (officers, non-commissioned officers, and airmen), thereby insuring that each has a full-time job commensurate with his capabilities.
In the event of mutually exclusive instructions like these, the safest course of action is to make readily defensible decisions on the basis of the most clearly measurable and easily justifiable criteria, which, of course, would be seniority rather than ability. Such contradictory policy directives are likely to lead to frustration and cynicism in both supervisor and subordinate.
Encouraging excellence in the large organization is not an easy matter. There are strong forces present in every organization which result from normal human reactions and cause a drift toward excessive regard for equality, to the detriment of excellence. The majority of the members of the typical organization tend to resist recognition of excellence because of the personal need to protect one’s sense of self-worth. A system which promotes on merit implies that those not promoted are lacking in merit or worth. Promotion strictly on merit in a society which views performance as the rightful determinant of status places a special burden on those not promoted.
. . . if a society sorts people out efficiently and fairly according to their gifts, the loser knows that the true reason for his lowly status is that he is not capable of better. That is a bitter pill for any man. 14
By contrast, promotion based on seniority creates no particular pressure for possibly painful self-examination by those not promoted.
Three qualities are especially important for a system which seeks to encourage excellence.
To the extent possible, it must:
—Avoid confusing achievement with human worth. Achievement should result from excellence, but “human dignity and worth should be assessed only in terms of those qualities of mind and spirit that are within the reach of every human being.”15 Thus, the system must avoid labels which seem to identify some members as first-class citizens and others as second-class.
—Recognize the diversity of excellence. One man may be an excellent mechanic, another an excellent writer, an excellent pilot, an excellent researcher, or an excellent manager. Each must be able to achieve the recognition appropriate to his own particular excellence.16
—Provide multiple chances. The man who fails to meet one test or evaluation should not feel that all future opportunity is cut off for his further advancement. This does not mean he should be promoted along with the successful but that as many opportunities as possible should be available to him to prove himself in the future and thus overcome the consequences of his previous failure. This helps avoid excessive despair and resentment as a result of a single failure.17
Trade-offs are nearly always involved in the application of a given set of standards. In the military, the operational requirements of combat must often take precedence over the requirements for promoting excellence. On the other hand, it is possible that an undesirable imbalance may develop if the trade-off considerations are not given continual explicit consideration. It is also important to distinguish clearly between what exists because of an operational requirement and what exists either merely from a failure to question tradition or from a failure of the management system.
How the Air Force measures up against the three qualities may be reflected in the following observations.
The Air Force and human worth. It has long been assumed that maintaining the military command authority and structure requires emphasizing a natural and almost mystical superiority of those of higher rank relative to those of lower rank. Achievement within this structure is often specifically equated with human worth and clearly so labeled, as most readily evident in the prerogatives of rank and the explicit social and promotional barriers separating the officer and enlisted forces.
The Air Force and diversity of excellence. Even though the Air Force is quite advanced in its system of career classification, the operational requirements of combat necessitate substantial flexibility in assignment of personnel. Thus, in spite of the classification system, there has long been an implicit ideal in military thinking of the universal officer who stands ready to step in and fill any leadership requirement that may arise consistent with the prerogatives of his rank. This idea has been referred to as the “fungibility” concept. This concept is clearly at odds with the need to recognize the diversity of excellence. The fungibility concept is reflected specifically in the fact that the officer effectiveness report (OER) and airman performance report (APR) systems of evaluating performance make no allowance for the diversity of excellence. There is no practical way to indicate that a man was misassigned outside the area of his competence without prejudice to his career. Likewise, the up-or-out promotion policy ignores the posssibility that a man may have the ability to perform with excellence in a lower-grade job even though he may not have the ability for a higher-grade job. Consistent with the Peter Principle, he is inevitably promoted to his highest level of incompetence.18
The Air Force and multiple chances. There is a widely held belief among officers that a single below-average OER will seriously limit all future chances for promotion, regardless of future performance and ratings. This places unfortunate pressures on both the rater and the ratee and contributes to excessive inflation of ratings.19 The highly skewed distribution of ratings toward the high end of the scale means that, while it is very difficult for an individual to raise his rating above the norm, it is quite easy for him to lower it. Risk-taking and innovative behavior thus become actively discouraged by the reward system. The failure of the system to provide for multiple chances is in a major way responsible for this situation. The only way to give a man a second chance under the present system is to give him a high rating. This in itself contributes to the over-inflation of ratings and makes it difficult to identify and give recognition to those individuals whose performance is truly excellent.
Clearly, designing an organizational system which will motivate excellence is no small task. It requires a broad review of many complex and interrelated elements of the overall organization. Any effort to reduce the implication that those of higher rank are inherently of superior worth would require a long process of re-education and a review of military courtesies, social prerogatives, and the barriers between officer and enlisted ranks. Reduced reliance on the seniority system might require provisions for lateral entry and development of a means to recognize and reward excellence in performance at the lower ranks.
Even in dealing with less fundamental and far-reaching elements of the system, there are many complex issues and relationships involved. If one manager gives a realistic OER appraisal, he merely unfairly penalizes his subordinates without really contributing to the system’s capacity to recognize excellence. Those who are responsible for designing and managing the OER cannot exercise control over the forces created by promotion criteria or the up-or-out policy. Changing the up-or-out policy requires rethinking of career progression patterns and development of alternative mechanisms for separating those personnel who are not likely to contribute to the Air Force mission in any capacity.
Effective correction of weaknesses in a motivational system requires joint coordinated action cutting across numerous functional lines of authority. Initiating and coordinating mechanisms that are presently nonexistent would be required.
No one is likely to deny the need for commitment to excellence in individual and organizational performance. The implications of such commitment, however, require difficult self-examination and may have far-reaching implications for the way an organization such as the Air Force is managed.
Harvard Graduate School of
1. For a previous article dealing with some broader problems of organizational design as they relate to the Air Force, see David C. Korten, “New Directions for Air Force Leadership: Design for Organizational Renewal,’’ Air University Review, XXI, 6 (November-December 1970), 59-68.
2. John W. Gardner, Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? (New York: Harper & Row, 1961).
3. Ibid., pp. 26-27.
4. Jack W. Carlson, “Improving Efficiency in the Use of Manpower Resources,” in Angelo L. Fortuna, ed., Personnel Research and Systems Advancement, Proceedings of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Symposium of the Personnel Research Laboratory, USAF (Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, December 1967), pp. 151-62.
5. AFPDPO, “Special Study Group on Characteristics of the Officer Force,” DCS/Personnel, Hq USAF, 20 February 1969, p. 21. Hereafter referred to as AFPDPO.
7. Directorate of Studies and Analysis, “Officer Motivation Study New View,” DCS/P&O, Hq USAF, November 1966, pp. 47-48, 54.
8. Ibid., p. 148.
9. Antony Jay, Management and Machiavelli: An Inquiry into the Politics of Corporate Life (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), p. 178.
10. AFPDPO, pp. 22-23.
11. New firms such as Lendman Associates of Norfolk, Virginia, and Gilbert Lane Personnel Agency of New York, which specialize so recruiting junior military officers completing their initial tour of duty for management positions in industry, are some to make attractive civilian opportunities increasingly visible to capable junior officer personnel.
12. Lt. R. P. Cook, “Officer Characteristics Study,” AFPDPLA, Hq USAF, 24 April 1969.
13. AFM 36-16, USAF Career Motivation Program for Officers and Airmen, Motivational Concepts and Directive, 4 December 1968, Vol. 1, pp. A4-1—A4-3 .
14. Gardner, p. 71.
15. Ibid., p. 81.
16. Ibid., pp. 127 ff.
17. Ibid., p. 116.
18. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong (New York: William Morrow, 1969).
19. Numerous weaknesses of the OER system have been pointed out by Major Albert H. Thelander in “The Air Force Should Replace the OER,” Air University Review, XX, 2 (January-February 1969), 115-119. The degree of skewness in OER means is reflected in the fact that, though, weighted OER means are calculated on a 9.0 scale, only 11.6 percent of the officers in the 3 to 5 years’ service group have an average below 7.0, with the result that any rating below 7.0 is considered to reflect marginal performance. See AFPDPO, p. 16 and Attachment 5.
Dr. David C. Korten (Ph.D., Stanford University) is a Visiting Associate Professor, Harvard Business School, and Academic Director of the MBA Program, INCAE, Managua, Nicaragua. As an Air Force officer, he worked in behavioral sciences for ARPA and DDR&E, lectured at the Special Air Warfare School, and conducted a study of USAF personnel management concepts for Headquarters USAF. Dr. Korten was a Fulbright lecturer in Ethiopia for three years, helping to establish a college of business administration there.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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