What do enlisted performance reports, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America have in common? They suffer from bad brand name recognition. So, what should we do? Bailout our EPR system?
We could rename the EPR. How about Yearly Evaluation Report or YER? A name change has worked for some, but then again the culture still persisted. Years ago we hoped a change from Airman Performance Report to EPR would do the trick. If it had, you wouldn’t be reading this commentary. So maybe that’s not the answer.
I recently heard Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Roy speak, and inevitably somebody brought up enlisted performance reports. Laughter spread throughout the audience. I wondered why. I reasoned we were all thinking the same thing: Here we go again!
Why do we immediately go there? I believe it’s because we communicate our message ineffectively.
It’s easier to communicate what you want your people to do and how you want them to do it. The pitfall is when we communicate in this manner, we neglect the most important part – why we need them to do it.
Author Simon Sinek believes this is why messages fail to stick. Sinek said great organizations communicate by focusing on why. What and how are irrelevant if you fail to communicate why.
Think about everything we’ve been taught about the enlisted evaluation system. It states in Air Force Instruction 36-2406, “Officer and Enlisted Evaluation Systems” what we are supposed to do. We are to conduct an initial, midterm and follow up feedback. Great, this covers what. See a trend happening? Next, we send senior airmen off to Airman Leadership School to learn how. We teach them to sit at a 45-degree angle, ask open-ended questions and set standards and expectations. We’ve now covered how to give a feedback.
Do you see the problem yet? We’re making the same mistake as failed organizations. We’re communicating incorrectly. We’re focusing on what and how, but where is why?
Roy said the key to our evaluation system is the periodic performance feedback sessions. EPRs are capstones to feedback. Ok, but why?
When I arrived at Incirlik Air Base my new supervisor was TSgt. Christy Jones. She changed my life by giving me a real initial feedback. I didn’t just passively sign a form. Instead, as she went through standards and expectations, she got to know me on a personal level so she could help me develop on a professional level. I remember a lot from that day, but what will stick with me the longest is why we had the feedback session. She told me, “Right now you’re a three. Every person I supervise starts with a clean slate. You will earn your rating.”
I saw my career flash before my eyes! I knew I had always performed like a four.
So, what did I do? After thinking that I would end my career as a staff sergeant with a four on my EPR, I got my act together. I accomplished my long overdue Community College of the Air Force degree, completed upgrade training and started projects around the base. Before I knew it, my midterm feedback was due. I felt my chest swell with pride as my supervisor looked me in the eyes and said, “I don’t know what has gotten into you, but you’ve exceeded all my standards.”
What got into me was a performance feedback! What got into me was a supervisor who wasn’t going to give me a five, but allow me to earn my rating. What got into me was a supervisor who held me to high standards through the feedback process.
At the end of last year, when I earned a five, I didn’t need an EPR. I knew in my heart I was truly among the best. The journey taught me more than a piece of paper ever could. The EPR just served as my epilogue. I had written each chapter throughout the year.
With harsh economic prospects on the horizon, we are going to continue shaping our Air Force. But, we will have to continue to fly, fight and win. The only way to achieve this is to start with feedbacks and develop our airmen much faster than I was developed, than you were developed.
When we ask an airman if they’ve gotten all their feedback sessions we are surprised when the answer is yes. We can change our culture, so when we ask that question we are surprised when the answer is no. Maybe one day we won’t even need to ask.
Reflect back on your own career. Maybe you haven’t had a supervisor like Sergeant Jones. How has your career been weakened by not having that NCO? How has your career changed as a result of having that NCO? Why can’t you be the NCO that changes your Airman’s career?
This is why feedbacks matter. This is why our EPRs matter.