By Matt Lensing, MTI Contributor
When you walk into a new unit you are tab checked. You have it or you don’t. You are a have or have not. You are a good or bad leader on day one. That is the fallacy infantry leaders believe, and one I have perpetuated in my career.
Every new lieutenant arriving from infantry basic officer leader course (IBOLC) is placed in a queue for platoon leadership. While not the only factor, a large determinant for getting a platoon ahead of peers is having a Ranger Tab. In my last battalion we had an LT arrive without a tab, and he was put to work in the operations (S3) shop until he had time to develop and eventually go to a platoon. The leadership assessed that he had a low ceiling for success because he did not graduate Ranger School. Fortunately he had another opportunity to go to Ranger School, and this time he graduated.
When he came back to the battalion he jumped ahead of peers and went into a Platoon almost immediately. His stock rose immensely and after only six months as a platoon leader he was selected to become a Company executive officer (XO), which is a position usually reserved for the top tier of a lieutenant cohort. When he departed the battalion two years later he was in the top of his peer group. What changed? Did 61 days at Ranger School provide him all he needed to become an effective combat leader? I doubt it.
What changed was how the battalion leadership viewed his potential. Individuals have implicit biases and Army leaders are no different. Despite the Army’s recent attempts to eliminate bias from promotion boards by removing photos more has to be done to change the culture of making snap judgements on leaders. Ways to remove biases when selecting individuals for leadership positions and career opportunities include:
- Removing Ranger Tabs and skill identifiers from uniforms
- Not looking at past evaluations when measuring current performance
- Administering 360-degree assessments to leaders annually, or at least prior to promotions, to measure how peers, subordinates, and superiors rate their performance.
Remove Ranger Tabs, Skill Badges, and Identifiers
The military uniform provides immediate credibility to those who likely have no personal knowledge of the wearer’s abilities. Every time someone judges a Soldier positively because of a badge or skill tab they are succumbing to the halo effect. In the book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman describes the halo effect as, “the tendency to like (or dislike) everything about someone even the things you have not observed.” Anytime someone says that an individual is a good leader solely based on their Ranger Tab they are supporting this cognitive bias.
This bias is a shortcut for leaders to assess talent without directly observing someone in action. Young infantry LTs arrive to a battalion and have minimal credentials, so more emphasis is placed on physical appearance and their Ranger Tab, or lack thereof.
Removing the tab from everyday wear in the Army would force leaders to engage their analytical abilities to evaluate talent other than a biased judgement. However, it shouldn’t stop at the Ranger Tab; all skill badges and identifiers worn on uniforms encourage judgements about people, which may inflate other’s view of them. Conversely those who don’t have the same amount of flair as their peers are pre-judged as lacking the necessary leadership qualities. While the uniform tells a story it can become an impediment to assessing actual skill and talent, which can contribute to another bias, the anchoring effect.
Avoid Looking at Past Evaluations When Measuring Current Performance
Another concept from Daniel Kahneman and Amos Traversky’s research described in, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” is the idea of anchoring, which is when someone’s opinion is tied to a previous event or the first information received. Despite learning new facts individuals may still find themselves attached to earlier reports. In the Army people who perform well, or were rated high by previous bosses, will continue to perform well but hopefully its not solely because their last boss thought highly of them.
Superiors maybe susceptible to the anchoring effect when they ask junior officers to share their evaluations from previous jobs. While this practice is discouraged during the hiring marketplace it is still commonplace for senior raters to ask feedback on how someone was previously rated. The current boss runs the risk of anchoring their subordinates future performance to previous ratings. If a subordinate’s last boss rated them high then a rater will want to see their current performance in a similar manner because surely earlier raters wouldn’t be wrong. Conversely a previous negative evaluation will encourage raters to highlight their subordinate’s negative traits, which confirms their first piece of information they asked to see previous evaluations.
This practice can also encourage the hindsight bias. When a subordinate performs well, or poorly, the rater will think that they knew it all along since they had read it in a previous evaluation. Similarly knowing how former leaders viewed an individual will encourage current raters to view only the information that confirms their initial bias. To help avoid single sources of feedback that will determine an officers chance of promotion the Army should widely administer 360-degree feedback assessments.
Administer Annual 360-degree Feedback Assessments
If the Army wants to continue to eliminate bias when assessing leaders for performance and career opportunities they have to provide more methods to assess leadership ability. The anonymous feedback officers receive at Commanders Assessment Programs prior to battalion and brigade command is an option.
Previously officers were required to initiate a Multi-Source Assessment and Feedback (MSAF) survey at least annually, aligned to their officer evaluation reports. The feedback however was only released to the individual service member, so their was not much incentive to act on the results.
Recent Army talent management efforts emphasize leader feedback and professional coaching, but its currently only available to select audiences primarily promotable majors and lieutenant colonels with approximately 15 years of service. Providing mandatory feedback to leaders from the start of their career gives more data points to assess trends in an individual’s performance. Additionally this data should be tracked and tied to evaluations, which would reveal a more comprehensive view of an officers strengths and weaknesses as opposed to just what superiors write in an evaluation.
Blind promotion boards without photos were designed to eliminate race and gender biases, which may prevent qualified candidates from advancing in the ranks. This practice models the technique describe by Malcolm Gladwell in, “Blink,” when orchestras placed musicians behind screens during auditions to eliminate implicit biases that specifically disadvantaged women despite them having equal or superior talent to male counterparts.
Unfortunately removing biases from promotions won’t fix all the problems in the Army since a Soldier is judged by physical attributes daily. A fresh haircut is associated with discipline, and a clean and pressed uniform equated with attention to detail. Skill badges are representations of expertise and combat patches with experience. These physical decorations are surrogates for actual knowledge of an individuals capability.
As a leader I have to acknowledge my own biases to favor individuals with observable signs of accomplishment and force myself to seek first hand proof about their attributes. Leaders seeking to create a meritocracy in the Army should avoid relying on awards, credentials, and especially physical appearance to assess talent because they contribute to biased outcomes.
Matt Lensing is an active duty infantry officer who has served in the U.S. Army since 2007.
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