April 13, 2012

Hold the line: Truth is hard to hear, but can set you free

by Chief Master Sgt. Ben Caro
Elgin AFB, Fla.

As a master sergeant and the newly appointed squadron superintendent, I felt it was important to provide our unit’s Airmen with an honest assessment of their performance. Seizing an opportunity, I asked a staff sergeant to come by my office for a chat.

The staff sergeant was one of our hardest working NCOs and the best unit training manager I’d seen in my then-13 years of service. During our conversation, I told him all the great things he was doing and that made him visibly happy.

Telling him the positive things was the easy part. The hard part was telling him there were a couple of areas he could improve upon. The sergeant’s demeanor instantly changed.

I told him he needed to be careful with the way he pronounced certain words and then provided him a couple of examples. Although I knew he was very intelligent and currently working on a master’s degree, I thought others might think less of him if he continued in this manner.

That was not easy for me to say and it was not easy for him to hear. The NCO had a great work ethic, which made it easy for most people, including his supervisor, to overlook his shortcomings.

Another area for improvement was his attitude. On numerous occasions, the NCO would publicly complain about leadership’s decisions. His open defiance had a negative impact on his peers. After I said my piece, I gave him the opportunity to respond. The sergeant didn’t have much to say. Through gritted teeth, he said “thank you” as he left the office.

Once alone, I reflected on our conversation and wondered if I’d done the right thing. By providing the sergeant with an honest assessment I might have de-motivated one of our unit’s hardest working NCOs.

Over the next few days, I saw the NCO in passing and although he was not rude, I could tell he was not happy to see me. I did not apologize for any of my statements as I knew in my heart I had said and done the right thing.

Later in the week, the staff sergeant asked if we could talk and I obliged. For three days, he’d been ticked about what I’d said. He’d thought to himself, “Who does this guy think he is? Where does he get off talking to me about how I speak or about my attitude? I’m one of the best NCOs in this squadron.”

After stewing on it for a few days and clearing his head, it finally hit him. No one had ever talked to him like that. No one had ever told him there was room for improvement. No one had ever been that honest.

Being honest is essential to great leadership and molding great Airmen. It’s easy to tell someone when they’ve done well and we usually find it easy to pay others a compliment. However, being honest isn’t always easy. Honesty requires being truthful, sincere and genuine. It implies a refusal to lie or deceive in any way.

The concept should be simple enough. It goes hand in hand with our first core value — integrity. So, why do we have a hard time being honest with each other? It’s because honesty takes courage. It takes courage to tell people what they need to hear, even if it’s not what they want to hear.

As Airmen, we have an inherent duty to provide our people honest, truthful feedback. Honest feedback means giving our Airmen the good and the bad. We need to find the right balance to ensure we are promoting growth.

The next time you have the opportunity to give your Airmen feedback do it honestly. Their professional growth depends on it. They may not like it. They may grit their teeth and say thank you as you part company. But in the long run, they’ll appreciate the honesty, grow from it, and move forward.

That staff sergeant went from being a good NCO to an outstanding NCO. He was STEP (Stripes for Exceptional Performers) promoted to technical sergeant a year after our conversation and continued to excel. He was promoted to master sergeant and senior the first time. In Dec. 2011, he pinned on chief. I know, because I was there. He asked me to tack on his stripes.

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