The second I pinned on staff sergeant I knew I could do it. I could be the NCO the Air Force wanted me to be. I could write fair enlisted performance reports and prove the naysayers in airman leadership school wrong. Sure, what we learned might “not be the way it’s done in the real Air Force,” but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be.
I was going to prove them wrong. I was going to set the example.
But I didn’t.
Before I could spell EPR I had fallen in line. I rated every Airman the same – fives across the board. Some deserved it. Others probably, admittedly, did not.
So, what happened? Culture happened.
Culture influences the way a country, a community, even a military organization operates. Members of a culture share certain beliefs that drive their actions. These beliefs are often unconscious, but so firmly held that to think otherwise – and to respond otherwise – is, as Vizzini from “The Princess Bride” puts it, inconceivable.
In America we believe timeliness is important. We respond by tracking every minute, making firm appointments and rushing to be on time. When we do run late our bodies physically respond with stress. In countries that feel differently about time this is, yes, inconceivable.
In certain communities, parents believe children need tough discipline. They respond by collecting spanking sticks, publicly yelling at their children and assigning multiple chores. In communities that raise their children in a gentler environment this is, you got it, inconceivable.
In the Air Force, when it comes to the EPR, we also have beliefs that influence our behavior. We believe a five EPR is necessary for promotion. We believe inflated ratings don’t matter because they happen everywhere. We even believe a three or four EPR is reserved for “bad” Airmen. These aren’t what the numbers say, nor what the EPR says; but they are what we believe, and we respond accordingly. In fact, these assumptions are so ingrained in our minds that it’s hard to reject them. They are so strong that even those who don’t want to believe, those who want to rate fairly, struggle to break free from the cultural pressure.
If we understand the inflated ratings as a symptom of our shared beliefs, one thing becomes clear: the enlisted evaluation system doesn’t need to change. We need to change. Our culture needs to change.
Unfortunately, culture change isn’t easy. Just ask Kevin Bacon.
In the movie “Footloose,” Bacon moves to a town that believes dancing and pop culture lead teenagers to sex, drugs and, ultimately, death. Town residents respond by outlawing dancing, hiding pop records and burning inappropriate books.
Bacon faces intense pressure to conform to these standards, but he refuses. He’s ridiculed, shamed and treated as a troublemaker, but he doesn’t give up.
He puts on his dancing shoes and begins to fight back.
At first he stands alone, dancing by himself in an empty warehouse (I never understood that scene), but as time passes, more of his neighbors begin to dance beside him. As the number of dancers grows, his movement grows. Eventually the town begins to see their stance against dancing for what it is – a misplaced belief.
Last week I read Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Roy’s perspective on bold leadership and thought now is the time for us to make like Bacon and change the way our Air Force operates. It will take more than dancing shoes, of course. It will take bold leadership from the very top to the very bottom, it will take open and honest dialogue to expose our beliefs for what they really are – beliefs, not facts – and it will definitely take time.
It always takes time, but that time can’t start until we begin.
The question is who is going to respond to Roy’s challenge? Who is going to set the example, to stand out from the crowd, to take it upon themselves to change these beliefs that are holding us back?
Or maybe the question isn’t who. I’d be dumb to think Airmen everywhere are not ready for this change.
Maybe the question is when. When do we start holding ourselves, and others, accountable for doing proper feedbacks and setting goals for our Airmen? When do we start demanding honest and fair ratings according to the EPR scale? When do we start supporting those who have already tried?
Today would be good.