Commentary

June 27, 2014

Culture change requires new way to think

Capt. AJ ZORN
56th Civil Engineer Squadron

The racist comments made by Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, shocked the nation and were met with extreme displeasure by most Americans.

Though the details can be heavily debated, it’s safe to say that most Airmen believe the comments were inappropriate for one reason or another. In the infamous recording, Mr. Sterling tries to explain why he has the views he does. He blames it on the culture he was raised in. Though many find that excuse lacking, I believe we use that same excuse in our Air Force on a regular basis.

Over the last couple of years, the culture of the Air Force and the military in general has been heavily scrutinized. Serious issues, such as sexual assault and cheating, have grabbed the headlines and the attention of the public.

There are many behaviors that happen in the Air Force that are written off for reasons such as “That’s the way those guys are,” “It’s in our blood,” or “We’ve always done it this way.”

Really? Are we OK with that explanation? Or is it that it’s simply an easy answer to give rather than dealing with an issue head-on? If we’re honest about it, it may mean that we have to do more work and change things that we’ve become comfortable with.

I think the biggest fallacy that must be dispelled is the idea that your job “requires it.” I’ve heard certain groups justify their behavior because they “have to keep an edge,” “deal with life and death,” or “operate as a family.”

Where in any of those explanations do derragotary comments or degrading behavior actually help? Are we so blinded by the way we’ve always done things that we believe these actions continue to help the mission get accomplished? I recognize that our military is rich in tradition, but using that as a default justification for unacceptable actions can be a dangerous practice.

For example, there was a time that women weren’t allowed in the military, and before that, African-Americans. Thankfully, that time in history is just that – history and no longer true.

A destructive culture can hurt you in two ways.

First, you hurt the members of your own team. Maybe you’re personally OK with an off-colored joke every now and then, but it’s not OK when you introduce it to the work place and force it on others. It sounds cliché, but ask yourself, “Would I want my wife, son or daughter to hear this? Is this the kind of environment I’d want them to work in?” If the answer is no, perhaps you should address it.

Second, it forces the chain of command to waste time on the consequences of behavior rather than the mission. Believing that a negative culture has no consequences is naïve.

So ask yourself, “Does my job really need this? Will this make my work center function better?” You’ll likely find that some behaviors are based more on preference than need. This is a question that must be answered at every level of leadership. If we don’t, we’re only limiting ourselves.




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