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Assessing Leaders from the Bottom Up

 

 

 
 
   
   
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(Credit: istockphoto.com/oatawa)

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Our sons and daughters of this nation deserve good leadership. If you look at readiness, if you look at combat power, the most important element of that is not technology. It’s not the guns, the planes, the ships. It’s not the weapons. It’s not the computers. It’s the people, and, most importantly, it’s the leaders.1

In November 2019, 534 judge advocates responded to a survey about the impact that leaders have on subordinates in the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps.2 Ninety percent of respondents agreed that leaders were an important factor when deciding whether to remain on active duty, and nearly two-thirds of respondents agreed that they thought about leaving active duty because of experiences with past or present leaders.3 In addition, sixty-six percent indicated that if they had the chance to comment on a leader’s ability, they would. The results of this survey, and comments provided by respondents, strongly indicate that good leadership is imperative to enhancing the strength of the JAG Corps. Further, it shows a clear appetite of junior judge advocates to provide feedback about their leaders. Which raises the questions: Can the JAG Corps leverage junior judge advocates to better assess their leaders, and what would that process or procedure look like?

The Army approaches the assessment of its leaders from the top down; that is, the Army vests total responsibility in an officer’s rater and senior rater when assessing a subordinate’s leadership ability. This method, however, ignores a vital player in the assessment of a leader: subordinates led by the evaluated officer. By eschewing this vital information, the Army only assesses its young leaders through the lens of a superior who has no personal experience working for the evaluated officer. This gives rise to the very realistic possibility that poor leadership qualities go unidentified until they rise to a level requiring greater scrutiny.4

Though not insulated from these concerns, the JAG Corps is in a unique position to address this blind spot. The Judge Advocate General (TJAG) of the Army has statutory and regulatory authority over his Corps that allows him to create additional methods of management and assessment to better identify quality leaders and to help those who need to remedy their shortcomings.

This article proposes TJAG implementing a form of “subordinate review”5 that will require subordinates to provide feedback regarding their immediate supervisor’s leadership successes and shortfalls. This will provide much-needed information to better develop leadership skills and desirable qualities of the individual. Moreover, when aggregated, these reviews will enhance the JAG Corps’s ability to develop and identify leaders of the future. The benefits would extend well beyond these two practical applications by creating “employee engagement”6 and improving what psychologists refer to as an increased sense of “procedural justice.”7 This is more than a convenient thought experiment. Rather, multiple studies and real-world initiatives identify and elaborate on the positive effects of engaging subordinates and the benefits of seeking their feedback.8

This article begins by identifying the blind spot inherent in the Army’s assessment of leadership and discusses TJAG’s authority to create and implement meaningful initiatives within the Corps to correct the deficiency. Next, it examines the reasons why subordinate review is critical to the development of leaders within the JAG Corps, highlighting the many positive effects that occur when an organization seeks to increase employee engagement. Finally, a proposal lays out a simple form of upward feedback, and it addresses the multiple concerns identified in comments respondents made in the Survey.9

Army Leadership Doctrine’s Blind Spot

Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-22 defines leadership as “the activity of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.”10 This description intimates that the Army believes leadership is a skill that can be developed, rather than an unchanging quality one possesses or does not possess.11 To this end, the Army has created Army Regulation (AR) 600-100, Army Professional and Leadership Policy, to guide the force and provide a methodology by which to develop leaders.12 These documents focus on how an officer leads subordinates. They, however, do not provide or contemplate an avenue for subordinates to comment on their supervisor’s performance. Examining how the Army defines a leader, and a brief recitation of the evaluation process, reveals that the Army’s method of assessing its leaders—who grow tremendously through experiential learning—contains a glaring gap: one TJAG can fix.

Army Leadership Defined

The Army expects a leader to influence people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation. Influence is the process of “persuading people to do what is necessary.”13 To achieve this goal, a leader must effectively, “through words and personal example...inspire purpose, provide direction, and when required motivation.”14 Doctrine describes purpose, direction, and motivation.

Purpose is something that “gives subordinates a reason to achieve a desired outcome.”15 Direction is the ability to communicate “what to do. Providing effective direction requires that leaders communicate the desired end state for the direction they provide.”16 Finally, for a leader to motivate people in the organization, he or she must “understand others’ needs and desires, to align and elevate individual desires into team goals, and to inspire other[s] to accomplish those larger goals.”17 Notable in each definition is the requirement of a leader to affect his or her subordinates in a positive and meaningful way.

How, then, does the Army and, more specifically, a rater or senior rater, know whether a leader is effectively influencing his or her followers? The Army places the responsibility for evaluating the leaders of tomorrow on officers senior to the rated officer.18 Yet, a rater and senior rater have no meaningful or systematic way to query a leader’s subordinates to check how he or she is performing. Instead, the primary assessment tool is an annual Officer Evaluation Report (OER) with required or recommended counseling leading up to the OER.19

Officer Evaluation Process

To aid senior officers in evaluating their subordinates, the Army created the “Leadership Requirements Model.”20 The model articulates the standards used to measure an officer’s performance, outlining the institutional expectations of those in leadership positions.21 The model centers “on what a leader is (attributes—BE and KNOW) and what a leader does (competencies—DO).”22

Most relevant to this article, and the common attribute and competency discussed in both company grade23 and field grade24 OERs, are the core competency of “Leads” and the core attribute of “Character.” To assess both the “leads” competency and the “character” attribute, a rater and senior rater must consult both definitions in ADP 6-22 and comment on the rated officer’s ability to meet both definitions.25 The OER is the primary (and some would argue the sole) means through which an officer’s leadership abilities and potential are evaluated.26

A rater and senior rater have extensive guidance on how to evaluate their subordinates. A review of AR 623-3, as well as the associated Department of the Army Pamphlet (DA Pam) 623-3, shows that it makes no mention of a rater or senior rater’s obligation to seek input from a leader’s subordinates. Instead, both documents are replete with advice empowering a rater or senior rater to render an “independent assessment of how well the rated Soldier met duty requirements and adhered to the professional standards of the Army’s Officer Corps.”27 The Army tells rating officials that “[p]erformance will be evaluated by observing actions, demonstrated behavior, and results from the point of view of the Army Leadership Requirements Model and responsibilities identified on evaluation reports and support forms.”28 This guidance does not contemplate the involvement of subordinates or encourage a rating official to seek and consider such information; but, the lack of subordinate input does not stop with the evaluation process.

The Army’s Method of Assessing and Developing Leaders—Experiential Learning

When it comes to developing leaders, Army doctrine effectively ignores those most affected by the superior. Doctrinally, the Army recognizes three “developmental domains that shape critical learning experiences: operational, institutional, and self-development.”29 The Army describes each domain as “dynamic and interconnected,”30 requiring “a continuous cycle of education, assessment, and feedback...from various sources to maximize mission readiness and to develop Army professionals.”31 These three domains operate cyclically or simultaneously for leaders to draw lessons from to develop themselves.

Though AR 600-100 recognizes that feedback from multiple sources is required to properly educate and mold a leader, it provides little guidance from where that feedback should derive. There is no mention of feedback or subordinate-like review in either the “institutional” or “self-assessment” domains, and only a single mention of “assessment” and “feedback” in the subparagraph dealing with operational assignments.32 According to this paragraph, “the majority of professional development occurs while in operational assignments, learning from role models, and experience as a result of performing assigned duties.”33 Though not explicitly stated, it would appear that assessment and feedback in this context means commentary from those senior to the developing leader.

Throughout AR 600-100 and ADP 6-22, there is no articulated way for a leader to learn from subordinates. This is not to say that all leaders are ignoring subordinate input. Undoubtedly, some seek it out informally. Until a mechanism exists that allows subordinates to provide meaningful input into their immediate leaders’ abilities, though, this knowledge gap will almost certainly persist. The result will be officers continuing to cycle through the three domains of development without an opportunity to identify their strengths and weaknesses from the perspective of those they lead.

Similarly, rating officials will continue to operate without critical information necessary to rate a subordinate, as well as information to identify meaningful avenues of mentorship and coaching. The solution is a formal mechanism to allow for subordinate input, which in the case of the JAG Corps, TJAG does have authority to implement.

The Judge Advocate General’s Authority to Implement Change

The Judge Advocate General has the ability to implement subordinate review without seeking additional authority or permission from any higher headquarters. Notably, TJAG possesses statutory authority to “direct the members of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps in the performance of their duties.”34 As the leader of a “special branch”35 within the military, TJAG in fact has statutory and regulatory responsibility to manage and supervise the members of the Corps.36 This statutory and regulatory language provides TJAG plenary authority (and responsibility) to assign, educate, manage, and direct the officers within his or her Corps.

Given this authority, TJAG can implement additional forms of assessment that augment the Army’s established assessment and evaluation processes.37 The proposed questionnaire is not a departure from the structure of current Army assessments; it does not seek to redefine the Army’s method of assessing leadership. Instead, the questions seek to understand the assessed officer’s current abilities as defined in ADP 6-22 and provide meaningful information to the rated officer’s supervisor to help create efficacious education, tailored mentorship, and thoughtful self-assessment. As such, an Upward Feedback Survey (UFS) is simply another method of information gathering to feed into and inform this “continuous cycle of education, assessment, and feedback.”38 The JAG Corps would not be the first global organization to embark on improving leaders through subordinate feedback.

Allowing Subordinate Review Will Enhance Leadership Development and Create Meaningful Engagement

The idea of allowing subordinates to provide feedback about their superiors’ abilities is not a novel one. For decades, behavioral psychologists have studied the effects of seeking and encouraging followers to comment on the efficacy of a specific leader or an organization’s leadership in general.39 Empirical studies conducted in academic experiments,40 as well as real-world initiatives conducted by businesses like Google,41 well document the multitude of positive effects on morale, employee engagement, and leadership development. The JAG Corps can easily adopt and adapt these methods within the current assessment methodologies employed to develop and identify leaders. The key is to study and understand past experiments, adapt these efforts to fit the JAG Corps, and implement the methodology with strong JAG Corps member buy-in.

Google’s Project Oxygen: Managers Do Matter!

In 2009, Google asked a simple question: Are managers necessary?42 The resounding answer was “yes.”43 This simple inquiry led Google to reevaluate how it identified, promoted, and trained managers within its organization. By doing so, Google’s Project Oxygen definitively proved that managers do matter and that subordinates are an integral part of a manager’s development and an organization’s ability to train and identify leaders internally.

Google’s approach to evaluating managers is remarkably straightforward: Project Oxygen led to the identification of eight attributes common among the highest-performing leaders within the organization.44 “Upward Feedback Surveys”45 measure leaders’ ability to embody these attributes. A UFS asks employees to respond to statements using the Likert-type scale; the participants choose options that range from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” to represent their answers.46 A neutral party within the organization then collects the surveys and compiles a report.47 The manager receives the report to review it with his or her superior.48 Google also gathers, aggregates, and analyzes the information to identify general trends throughout the organization.49 With this information, Google created a massive database of leadership initiatives and training events available to all employees and managers.50

The impact of Project Oxygen was substantial and unequivocal. The UFS method showed sustained improvements in all levels of organization, and, most notably, the results of individual evaluations showed that the lowest-performing managers improved the most over time.51 In the first year alone, Google saw team morale and productivity increase, and retention of quality personnel skyrocketed.52 Though the methodology has continued to be fine-tuned, other organizations—ranging from businesses to governmental agencies—have used the findings and practices of Project Oxygen with similar results.53 The bottom line is simple—seeking and receiving input from subordinates improves the quality of leadership within the organization on both the micro and macro levels.

So, what can the Army JAG Corps learn from Google and Project Oxygen? In the following subsections, this article explores how implementing a UFS system similar to Google’s would (1) be an effective tool to develop and shape leaders within the Corps; (2) enable shaping the leadership education and doctrine for the JAG Corps in general; and (3) act as a catalyst for increasing engagement across the Corps.

Subordinate Input Will Fill the Knowledge Gap Currently Present in the Evaluation Process

Like Google, the Army’s method of evaluating its leaders limits input of subordinates, and thus misses a critical source of information. Implementation of a standardized UFS would provide superior officers inimitable insight into the abilities of their subordinate leaders. Candid and honest feedback from those who have worked for the leader, gathered at regular intervals throughout the leader’s tenure, would augment the superior’s knowledge of the rated leader’s strengths and weaknesses. In turn, a superior would use the feedback to develop the strengths of the subordinate and begin to remedy what problems may exist.

Similarly, the information provided by subordinates could guide the assessed leader toward appropriate self-development, as envisioned in Army doctrine. Over time, a rater could assess his or her subordinate’s improvement and receptiveness to the feedback given to them. Assuming a leader took the information to heart and made honest attempts to remedy flaws and foster strengths, this would lead to tangible, positive, changes in the way the leader engages with his or her present and future teammates.54

The Results of Upward Feedback Surveys, When Aggregated, Will Improve Leadership at All Levels Within the JAG Corps

Implementing a UFS across the JAG Corps would benefit the Corps as a whole. With the creation of the Leadership Center embedded within the Legal Center and School, TJAG signaled that developing leadership excellence within the Corps is a priority. Though its full mandate is not yet formed, the Leadership Center will undoubtedly be tasked with identifying both the strengths and weaknesses of leaders within the JAG Corps, as well as creating curriculum and doctrine to better educate the force at all levels. With aggregated information collected from a standardized UFS across the JAG Corps, the Leadership Center would be the central institution tasked with analyzing and identifying the developmental needs of the Corps’s leaders.

Additionally, the JAG Corps Personnel, Plans, and Training Office (PPTO) would benefit from the information gathered from a regular UFS. The information gathered would facilitate managing leadership talent, ensuring that the leaders best qualified are placed in positions of trust and supervision. Similarly, PPTO could use the feedback to identify leaders who would benefit from additional training and mentoring under trusted leaders. Finally, for those attorneys who continually fail to improve their leadership abilities, but who are otherwise highly skilled, PPTO could ensure their talents benefit the needs of the Corps; likewise, PPTO could make certain they do not have the negative effect on subordinates they may otherwise have if placed in positions of direct leadership.

There is a clear appetite among mid-level judge advocates for this type of action. Many respondents to the Survey recognized the importance of providing input regarding their leaders’ abilities, as well as having that input used to enhance leadership across the Corps.55 The benefits of a UFS system, however, would not be limited to the development of individual leaders and leadership doctrine within the Corps.

The Benefits of Creating Engagement by Providing Subordinates a Voice

The benefits of implementing a standard UFS would extend well beyond the immediate collection of information. When an organization provides its employees the ability to voice their opinions and present information relevant to a decision that affects the organization as a whole, those employees become more engaged, and their perceptions of fairness and self-importance increase; this results in higher morale and productivity.56 Scholars call this “employee engagement.” Defined as “a positive attitude held...towards the organization and its values,”57 the positive effects of elevated employee engagement include significantly higher productivity, higher levels of retention, and greater morale.58 Researchers have also found significant links between high employee engagement and increased efficacy of the leaders for whom the employees work.59 Finally, studies have confirmed that when companies engage their employees, they tend to trust the decisions of their leaders and the direction of the organization.60

Increasing Employee Engagement Increases the Belief in Procedural Justice

Where the JAG Corps is concerned, the importance of recognizing the significance of employee engagement and encouraging an employee to speak is not just another thought experiment. One of the major effects of a disengaged workforce is a belief that the decisions made above them are unfair. Put another way, because the employees have no “say” or voice in the decisions being made, whatever the decision may be is viewed skeptically, and often the workforce believes it to be against their own good. The Survey comments reflect a similar opinion among junior judge advocates.61

When asked, sixty-five percent of mid-level judge advocates indicated that they would want to provide input regarding a superior’s leadership ability.62 A similar percentage (sixty-two) also indicated that they did not have a meaningful way to voice an opinion regarding the same subject.63 In the comments of the Survey, many feared that any feedback would either not be taken seriously or would lead to retaliation—such as negative OERs or a negative reputation.64 This trust—or lack thereof—is a well-measured effect of engagement called “procedural justice.” 65

One of the most significant impacts of depreciated engagement is a corresponding dip in the employees’ belief in procedural justice. The side effects of low procedural justice include low morale, decreased productivity, and a significant drop in employee retention.66 The 333 responses provided in the Survey contain a fair amount of cynicism and distrust for any system that the JAG Corps might create that would allow for upward feedback.67 This cynicism is a symptom of diminished engagement, a decidedly poor result from current JAG Corps mid-level officers. A solution is to increase junior and mid-level judge advocates’ sense of procedural justice.

Therefore, this finding is not all bad. Just as Google was required to build trust before and during the implementation of subordinate review in the early stages of Project Oxygen,68 the process of overcoming a lack of trust in an organization’s leadership is not impossible. The primary remedy is giving the employees a say, and doing so in a way that both protects the employee from retaliation and controls the feedback provided to avoid commentary that is counterproductive and likely to lead to the superior becoming defensive (thus failing to accept the feedback given). Both the form of the questions asked on the UFS, and the education provided to JAG Corps members prior to implementation, can mitigate such detrimental emotional reactions.

Increased Engagement Creates Effective Leaders, Fostering Further Engagement

Social and behavioral psychologists have studied the continuing benefits of engagement on the efficacy of the managers of engaged employees. When employees are engaged in their organizations, the result is elevated work performance, retention, and morale. Put another way, with increased engagement comes a significant increase in positivity within the work environment. Studies have shown that engaged and positive employees have a similar effect up their chain of supervision, the most important of which is the increase in manager efficacy.69

A mutually beneficial cycle develops. When a leader or organization fosters engagement, the increased voice of employees correspondingly increases productivity and morale. The increasingly engaged workforce motivates the leadership to find new and better ways to increase and encourage engagement. Over time, the cycle has the potential of becoming self-perpetuating, leading to sustained growth in businesses that focus on developing effective managers, and encouraging further employee engagement.70

Subordinate Review for the JAG Corps: Upward Feedback Surveys and the Implementation Process

Combating the apparently low sense of procedural justice with an aim of increasing engagement and the efficacy of the JAG Corps’s leaders must be a priority of the JAG Corps moving forward. The first step toward this goal is to give subordinates a voice within the institution. The JAG Corps can achieve this by creating a standardized UFS. This section explains the key steps of creating and implementing a UFS and addresses how each step will mitigate concerns identified within the Survey.

The Questionnaire

The first step is the creation of a UFS questionnaire that addresses leadership attributes most relevant to the JAG Corps and the Army leadership model. As a base, both the Project Oxygen questions71 and the Gallup Workplace Audit (GWA)72 questionnaires are instructive. The goal of the questions is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a superior’s leadership ability—and nothing more. Narrowly tailored to the specific attributes, the questions would focus on the key qualities that make an effective leader.

One way to focus feedback employed by both Google and the GWA is limiting the freedom of responses the subordinate can make. In both the Google and GWA surveys, all but two questions use the Likert-type scale, and only one of those questions asks about the technical competence of the superior.73 The majority of questions focus on leadership attributes and how a supervisor’s performance has affected the respondent’s emotional and psychological role within the organization. By using limited, introspective questions, a leader is able to gage the effect he or she has on the engagement and morale of subordinates.

Though these questions are the backbone of the survey, there still must be questions that allow for answers that specifically address the strengths and weaknesses of the assessed leader. Therefore, there must be questions allowing the subordinate to comment specifically on the leader’s abilities. Again, Google’s approach is instructive. In its UFS, Google includes two questions: (1) “What would you recommend your manager keep doing?” and (2) “What would you have your manager change?”74 Narrowly scoped, these questions focus on issues of leadership. The call of the question does not allow the respondent an opportunity to attack the leader or to identify specific past grievances; otherwise, the answer would be outside the scope of the question and properly dismissed as unresponsive.75 In this way, the UFS would be a self-assessment tool for the assessed leader, a coaching and mentoring asset for rating officials and mentors, and a source of information to assist with talent management across the Corps.

Who Qualifies as a Leader for the Purpose of a UFS?

Next, the JAG Corps would need to identify who qualifies as a leader, requiring a UFS.76 Project Oxygen grew out of a survey system that Google was already using, in which the company asked all employees to rank their supervisors, regardless of that supervisor’s position or title within the company.77 In the JAG Corps, identifying individuals within leadership positions that would benefit from the use of a UFS is slightly more complicated. There has to be a sufficient pool of subordinates working for the leader. With too few subordinates, the information gathered from the UFS would be limited in its scope and foundation. Similarly, using rank as a discriminator would not work.78 As such, a combination of the two would likely be the best way to assess where to implement a UFS. In whatever way the JAG Corps implements the UFS system, assessed leaders would need to be in identified positions of leadership with a number of subordinates sufficient to provide meaningful feedback.79

Timing of the UFS

The next question is how often to administer the UFS.80 Google found that administering a UFS every six months was most effective for assisting in identifying strengths and weaknesses, and then assessing how the leader at issue adjusted (if needed) to the feedback they received.81 Just like the Army, Google formally evaluates its employees annually. By administering the UFS bi-annually, Google was able to provide managers with timely leadership feedback, and then provide those leaders with the necessary tools to develop any identified weaknesses within one rating period.82

The Army JAG Corps should implement its UFS in the same manner. Judge advocates generally have a permanent change of station (PCS) during the summer. Leaders assuming new responsibilities would have approximately six months to settle into their positions, after which time the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate (OSJA) would administer a UFS. The results of that survey would provide the rater of the leader—as well as the assessed leader—an understanding of his or her current strengths and weakness and be a part of regular counseling and mentoring.83 The rated leader would then be assessed again just before an annual OER.

Creating a regular schedule for UFS administration alleviates several concerns voiced by surveyed judge advocates by reinforcing the purpose of the UFS within the JAG Corps’s leadership development process. By regularizing feedback, the JAG Corps would reinforce the fact that the UFS exists to help a superior develop leadership abilities. Over time, subordinates would see changes in their superior’s actions and regularly be able to provide feedback about those changes. Allowing for such consistent feedback provides raters and senior raters invaluable insight into the progress of their subordinates and the morale of the office.

One could argue that such regularity may result in the UFS becoming redundant or leadership becoming formulaic rather than genuine. Google had similar concerns, which they accepted as a reasonable risk, rationalizing that the eight attributes that led to better leaders were naturally formulaic.84 Just like the Army, Google employees change positions on a regular basis. Google found that with each new boss, the UFS system benefited the development of the team, requiring leaders to adjust to their new subordinates and the new team’s dynamics.85

Use of the UFS Feedback by the Rater and Senior Rater

When asked whether to use subordinate feedback for evaluating a leader, Survey comments varied greatly, and identified multiple concerns.86 This section addresses the three most prevalent concerns and argues that the results of the UFS must be available and useable for the purpose of evaluations.

Results of Subordinate Feedback Must Be Available for Use in the Evaluation Process

Simply put, the results of the UFS must be available for the purpose of evaluations. First, it would be disingenuous to believe that a rater, having seen and discussed the results of a series of UFSs, could or would disregard what he or she had read when evaluating a subordinate. Second, the JAG Corps and, more generally, the Army’s focus on leadership development—and the need to identify and promote the best leaders—demands the collection of the best information. Third, and most obvious, is the fact that the ability to lead is a core competency on an officer’s OER. Raters are required to comment on a subordinate’s ability to lead. Thus, the information gleaned from multiple UFSs would easily translate to commentary within an OER. Moreover, the metrics available to the rater when commenting on a subordinate’s ability to lead would be of great assistance when attempting to discriminate among officers during promotion and assignment selection. Finally, the JAG Corps could take a page from Google and use the results to enhance doctrine and training of its own to address clear gaps in leadership throughout the Corps. This would be impossible if UFSs were held at the local OSJA and used solely for mentorship and guidance.

Notwithstanding these reasons for using UFS results for official purposes, concerns remain. Many Survey respondents voiced concern that leadership would become a popularity contest, resulting in leaders refusing to make difficult decisions.87 Some believed that the UFS would become a means for subordinates to voice specific grievances for which there are better avenues of redress.88 However, the greatest concern identified was the fear of retaliation by the assessed leader against anyone who voiced a negative opinion.89 These concerns and related issues will be addressed in turn.

Fallacy 1: Leadership Would Become a Popularity Contest

There is a clear misconception in the Survey that the UFS would become the sole means of evaluating an officer’s leadership ability. This is not the case. The intent of the UFS is to fill in the identified knowledge gap discussed above. The UFS will not replace Army doctrine; instead, it would supplement existing means of assessing leadership. To this end, a leader’s rater and senior rater still have the ultimate responsibility to review and evaluate a subordinate’s leadership ability. That rater and senior rater would still review their subordinate’s ability to complete his or her mission, work up and down the chain of command, provide principled counsel, along with many other determinations a rater and senior rater must make when assessing a subordinate. Thus, if any particular leader became overly concerned with pleasing subordinates at the expense of the mission, that would presumably be noticed and commented on by the subordinate’s rater and senior rater.

Fallacy 2: The UFS Is Redundant to Other Methods of Complaint

Multiple respondents voiced concern that a UFS would become another avenue to complain, similar and redundant to the purpose of the Inspector General (IG)90 and Command Climate Surveys91 (among other ways to raise concerns in the Army). As an initial matter, a UFS respondent’s ability to voice specific complaints about a leader would be limited by the nature of the questions asked and the narrow purpose of the survey.92 Beyond that, there is a fundamental difference between an IG complaint and a survey requesting information to asses a supervisor’s ability to lead.93 There is miniscule overlap between the two, if any.

Similarly, a UFS has little in common with a Command Climate Survey. Notwithstanding the fact that few judge advocates are in a position of command, the primary purpose of the UFS is as an assessment of a supervisor’s leadership strengths and weaknesses. Although a supervisor’s ability to lead may have an effect on the climate within a particular section, and the results of the UFS may improve that climate, this is not the purpose of the UFS. Frankly, if a UFS indicates a need for such a climate survey, that would be a positive second-order effect of a UFS.

Fallacy 3: Feedback Cannot Be Candid Unless It Remains Anonymous

A large number of respondents voiced concerns about providing any feedback at all, out of fear that any critical information would result in retaliation by the superior against the subordinate.94 This is a tragic response to see in such a high volume throughout the responses in the Survey, and it supports the need for additional means of assessing leadership within the JAG Corps. Under no circumstances should this be a subordinate’s fear, so long as the feedback provided is both thoughtful and professional. With that said, as discussed extensively in previous sections,95 the structure of the UFS—coupled with targeted education regarding its purpose and use—should alleviate concerns of reprisal. The UFS is not a mechanism for a subordinate to voice issues outside of the questions posed, and all of the feedback would be condensed and provided to the leader through the medium of a rater-subordinate counseling.

The most interesting issue that the concern of reprisal brings to light is whether the feedback itself and, more specifically, who provided the feedback would remain anonymous. Of the 333 respondents contributing written comments to the Survey, approximately forty percent identified that their willingness to provide candid and meaningful feedback would be directly affected by whether the leader would know what was said and who said it.96 Several identified that to avoid this concern, the information provided to the leader should be anonymous, but that the information provided to the rater and senior rater need not be.97 By making this distinction, a rater and senior rater could judge the veracity of the feedback provided, and properly construct commentary during counseling and mentoring, as well as on an OER.

For its part, Google elected to keep the feedback non-anonymous, trusting in the professionalism of their managers and believing that their managers would be truly interested in the feedback provided.98 However, Google did not simply implement the UFS system in a void; instead, they made concerted efforts to “socialize” the entire program among its employees.99 It is clear from the comments to the Survey that a similar socialization effort would be required prior to full implementation of a UFS within the JAG Corps.

Conclusion

Leadership is the bedrock of the Army’s ability to achieve its mission and retain the best Soldiers and officers within its ranks. Though a unique and professional Corps within the Army, the JAG Corps is no different. As such, the JAG Corps is susceptible to the same gaps in knowledge as the Army at large. One such gap is the systemic failure to look to subordinates when assessing a leader. The Army defines leadership as the activity of influencing people; yet, the Army provides no way for those influenced to identify the failures and successes of those leaders.

The JAG Corps has the ability to remedy this problem without altering the Army’s overall evaluation framework. It is TJAG’s unique and plenary authority over his Corps that allows him to implement any method of assessment or feedback that would further the development of attorneys under his charge, so long as it does not circumvent the prescribed methods of assessment already in place. Additional methods of assessment, specifically regarding leaders’ ability to lead, are necessary.

Creating a UFS so that subordinates can provide information to the rater and senior rater of their supervisor is the answer. Practically speaking, a UFS provides critical information about a supervisor’s leadership abilities—closing the knowledge gap unaddressed by current Army assessment methodologies. Moreover, the information gathered from around the Corps would be instrumental in the development of leadership doctrine and training.

The benefits are not limited to the practical results of the UFS. Giving employees a voice, allowing them to engage in the development of an organization—especially in the context of leadership—has benefits far beyond simply identifying who is a good leader. Giving a subordinate a voice allows that person to better connect with people with and for whom he or she works. When employee engagement increases, the benefits to the organization are real; productivity increases, morale flourishes, and personnel turnover plummets.

Nevertheless, as the Survey reflects, skepticism remains. The JAG Corps should neither ignore nor dismiss these results, but must similarly avoid allowing them to paralyze innovation. The Judge Advocate General should consider implementing an upward feedback survey for the benefit of the Corps and those aspiring attorney-leaders waiting to serve and lead. TAL

 


MAJ Sandys is currently the Deputy Director of the Leadership Center at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Virginia.



Notes

1. Michelle Tan, Army Chief to Leaders: Winning is Everything in Combat, Army Times (Apr. 22, 2016), https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2016/04/22/army-chief-to-leaders-winning-is-everything-in-combat.

2. This assertion is based on a survey the author conducted between 24 Oct. 2019 to 13 Nov. 2019 (on file with author) [hereinafter The Survey].

3. Id.

4. See generally Daniel Zwerdling, Army Takes On Its Own Toxic Leaders, Nat’l Pub. Radio (Jan. 6, 2014), https://www.npr.org/2014/01/06/259422776/army-takes-on-its-own-toxic-leaders; Carl Forsling, The Military Has A Toxic Leadership Problem, Task and leadership (Aug. 23, 2017), https://taskandpurpose.com/military-toxic-leadership-problem; Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, It’s Time To Address Toxic Leadership In The Military, In Mil. (Dec. 11, 2018), https://inmilitary.com/its-time-to-address-toxic-leadership-in-the-military/.

5. New York Daily News, Rating Your Boss: It’s for His Own Good, Chi. Trib. (Mar. 7, 1985), http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1985-03-07-8501130323-story.html.

6. Solomon Markos & M. Sandhya Sridevi, Employee Engagement: The Key to Improving Performance, 5 Int’l J. Bus. & Mgmt. 89 (2010).

7. E. Allan Lind et al., Voice, Control, and Procedural Justice: Instrumental and Noninstrumental Concerns in Fairness Judgments, 59 J. Personality & Soc. Psych. 952 (1990). Both increased employee engagement and an elevated sense of procedural justice lead to greater productivity, morale, and personnel retention. See Markos, supra note 6.

8. David A. Garvin et al., Google’s Project Oxygen: Do Managers Matter?, Harv. Bus. Sch. Case 313-110, Oct. 2013.

9. This article does not comment on the Army’s definition of a leader, and it does not argue for a dramatic change in the definitions of leadership or ways in which the Army ultimately evaluates a leader. Instead, this article simply identifies a significant shortfall in the information used to assess leadership, offering a simple way to correct that problem.

10. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Doctrine Pub. 6-22, Army Leadership para. 1-74 (1 Aug. 2019) (C1, 1 Nov. 2019) [hereinafter ADP 6-22].

11. Id. para. 1-73.

12. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Reg. 600-100, Army Profession and Leadership Policy (5 Apr. 2017) [hereinafter AR 600-100]

13. ADP 6-22, supra note 10, para. 1-75.

14. Id.

15. Id. para. 1-76. Army Regulation 600-100 recognizes that providing purpose to both the individual and the organization is critical for the core competency of “Leads others,” often requiring a leader to provide “a common purpose” to his or her subordinates. AR 600-100, supra note 12, para. 1-11(b)(1).

16. ADP 6-22, supra note 10, para. 1-77.

17. Id. para. 1-79. In his address to the 49th Staff Judge Advocate Course in 2019, the Deputy Judge Advocate General, Major General Stuart Risch, charged the leaders of the JAG Corps to “inspire, excite, and motivate” their subordinates. Major Justin R. Wegner, 49th Staff Judge Advocate Course Wrap-Up, Army law., June 2019, at 8, 11.

18. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Reg. 623-3, Evaluation Reporting System para. 1-8 (14 June 2019) [hereinafter AR 623-3].

19. Id.

20. ADP 6-22, supra note 10, para. 1-82.

21. Id.

22. Id. para. 1-84.

23. U.S. Dep’t of Army, DA Form 67–10–1, Company Grade Plate (O1 – O3; WO1 – CW2) Officer Evaluation Report (Nov. 2015).

24. U.S. Dep’t of Army, DA Form 67–10–2, Field Grade Plate (O4 – O5; CW3 – CW5) Officer Evaluation Report (Nov. 2015).

25. AR 623-3, supra note 18, para. 2-12(i).

26. Id. para. 1-8(a)(4)(a).

27. Id. para. 1-9.

28. Id.

29. AR 600-100, supra note 12, para. 1-1.

30. Id. para. 1-9(c)(1).

31. Id. para. 1-9(c).

32. Critical to the efficacy of operational assignments is “repetitive performance...coupled with self-awareness, assessment, and feedback,” allowing a leader to refine their skills. Id. para. 1-9(c)(2)(b) (emphasis added).

33. Id.

34. Judge Advocate General, Assistant Judge Advocate General, and general officers of Judge Advocate General’s Corps [JAG Corps]: appointment; duties, 10 U.S.C. § 3037 (2006).

35. Special Branches, 10 U.S.C. § 3064 (2010).

36. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Reg. 27-1, Judge Advocate Legal Services para. 2-1 (5 Apr. 2017).

37. AR 600-100, supra note 12, para. 2-10(c).

38. Id. para. 1-9(c).

39. Lind, supra note 7. See also John W. Thibaut & Laurens Walker, Procedural Justice: A Psychological Analysis (1975); James R. Detert & Ethan R. Burris, Can Your Employees Really Speak Freely?, Harv. Bus. Rev., Jan.-Feb. 2016.

40. See generally Lind, supra note 7; Markos, supra note 6; Fred Luthans & Suzanne J. Peterson, Employee Engagement and Manager Self-efficacy Implications for Managerial Effectiveness and Development, 21 J. Mgmt. & Dev. 376 (2001).

41. Garvin, supra note 8.

42. Id. at 4.

43. Id. at 6.

44. Id. Compare Will Meddings, A Breath of Fresh Air: Project Oxygen and the British Army, The Army Leader (Nov. 11, 2019), https://thearmyleader.co.uk/project-oxygen-british-army/ (The number of attributes has since expanded to 10: (1) Be a good coach, (2) Empower the team, do not micromanage, (3) Create an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being, (4) be productive and results-oriented, (5) be a good communicator—listen and share information, (6) support career development and discuss performance, (7) have a clear vision/strategy for the team, (8) have key technical skills to help advise the team, (9) collaborate across the organization, and (10) be a strong decision maker), with AR 600-100, supra note 5, para. 1-11(b) (The Army provides a similar list of ten attributes, which the Army calls “core leader competencies” and which “all leaders are responsible for demonstrating consistently”). See also ADP 6-22, supra note 10, para. 1-31.

45. Garvin, supra note 8, at 7.

46. Id. See also Re:Work with Google, https://rework.withgoogle.com/guides/analytics-run-an-employee-survey/steps/understand-structured-vs-open-ended-questions/ (last visited Dec. 9, 2019).

47. Garvin, supra note 8, at 7. To collect and synthesize Upward Feedback Surveys (UFSs), Google relied on a newly created division within the company they called, “people analytics.” Id. at 4.

48. Id. See generally Garvin, supra note 8, Exhibit 7.

49. See Garvin, supra note 8, at 8.

50. Id. at 8-9.

51. Id. at 10.

52. Id. at 9.

53. Re:Work with Google, supra note 46.

54. This proved to be true for Google after it implemented the Upward Feedback Survey (UFS) system. Within two years, the median UFS score increased by five percent, and the improvements held true across all levels of managers. Garvin, supra note 8, at 10. For example, a particularly high-earning manager received a particularly low UFS score during his first round of ratings. This manager went through the training, and then implemented many of the suggested changes to his leadership style with great success. Id. This anecdote is not a one-off: “other Google managers were equally surprised after receiving their first set of scores.” Id. In addition, many of those managers saw equally positive results after implementing basic changes to their leadership style based on that feedback. Id.

55. “Bottom-up feedback is a vital part of leadership.” The Survey, supra note 2, comment 110; “the more information senior leaders are armed with, the more they will be able to mentor and develop the officers who serve under them,” Id. comment 143; “The [JAG Corps] should focus more not only on teaching leadership but also trying to recognize, tag, and track naturally-good leaders.” Id. comment 189.

56. Lind, supra note 7, at 952.

57. Markos, supra note 6, at 90.

58. Lind, supra note 7, at 957.

59. Luthans, supra note 40.

60. Lind, supra note 7, at 952.

61. “Input from me will surely make no difference,” The Survey, supra note 2, comment 131; “It’s [sic] reputation, primarily based on who you know or who you worked for, that matters as much, if not more, than actual performance when it comes to promotion/assignment,” Id. comment 129; “clearly the [JAG Corps] does not really care about leadership, because they do not already ask for feedback ON THE PERSON’S LEADERSHIP,” Id. comment 140.

62. The Survey, supra note 2, Question 6.

63. Id. Question 7.

64. In the JAG Corps, one’s reputation is often referred to as “the third file.” In the written responses to the Survey, nearly fifty percent of respondents who were concerned about their reputation voiced their concern in the context of a poor entry in their “third file.” See The Survey, supra note 2. “[T]he assignment and rating system in the JAG Corps, specifically, the ‘third file,’ makes it highly unlikely a [j]udge [a]dvocate who wants to continue service will provide candid feedback to supervisors,” Id. comment 170; [i]n the Army, everyone realizes that the person above you can make or break your future, even if they aren’t ‘retaliating.’ I believe the ‘third file’ is a real thing—especially in the [JAG Corps].” Id. comment 266.

65. See generally Thibaut, supra note 39; Laurens Walker et al., Reactions of Participants and Observers to Modes of Adjudication, J. Applied Soc. Psych. 295 (1974).

66. V. Kumar & Anita Pansari, Measuring the Benefits of Employee Engagement, MIT Sloan Mgmt Rev., Summer 2015, at 67, 68.

67. See supra note 62.

68. Garvin, supra note 8, at 8.

69. Luthans, supra note 40, at 379.

70. Id. This result is the same in the medical field. A recent study proved that the better a physician is as a leader the better the care patients will receive from both the physician as well as the physician’s staff. Dhruv Khullar, M.D., Good Leaders Make Good Doctors, N.Y. Times (Nov. 21, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/21/well/live/good-leaders-make-good-doctors.html.

71. Garvin, supra note 8, at 18.

72. Q12 Employment Engagement, Gallup, https://www.gallup.com/access/239210/employee-engagement-survey.aspx (last visited Dec. 2, 2019).

73. Garvin, supra note 8, at 8.

74. Jeff Haden, Here’s How Google Knows in Less Than 5 Minutes if Someone Is a Great Leader, Inc. (Apr. 19, 2019), https://www.inc.com/jeff-haden/heres-how-google-knows-in-less-than-5-minutes-if-someone-is-a-great-leader.html.

75. Structuring the questionnaire in this focused way is imperative to the process and addresses a primary criticism mentioned in The Survey: that feedback would become another Multi-Source Assessment and Feedback (MSAF) 360. To start, a UFS shares very few similarities with the MSAF 360. The UFS would consist of no more than twenty questions, total, compared to the MSAF 360’s 150 questions. Second, unlike the MSAF 360, the assessed leader would not be allowed to choose who provides feedback, and the feedback would be given to the leader’s rater. As discussed further below, the UFS would be conducted twice a year. See discussion, infra Part V, Section C. The results of a UFS would be used to identify leaders for future assignments; further, the information would be aggregated to create leadership training and doctrine.

76. The UFS could be used by anyone at any time; this article contemplates only the creation of a system in which the UFS is mandated by The Judge Advocate General.

77. Garvin, supra note 8, at 7.

78. Many field grade officers are in positions where they supervise no one or have no rating authority over those who report to them. Such a position has limited “leadership” aspects to it, and may not benefit from a formal UFS.

79. If a particular manager had fewer than three subordinates, they were not provided a report of the UFS feedback. Garvin, supra note 8, at 8.

80. During the early stages of Project Oxygen, Google had significant concerns about how often to conduct a UFS. Garvin, supra note 8, at 11.

81. Id. at 8.

82. Google developed these trainings by teaming with academics and analyzing all of the UFS from across the company. The trainings were not mandatory, and they were open to any employee, manager or otherwise. Garvin, supra note 8, at 8-9.

83. AR 623-3, supra note 18, para. 2-12.

84. Garvin, supra note 8, at 11. When reflecting on the question, Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations, remarked:

We are not trying to change the nature of people who work at Google. That would be presumptuous and dangerous. Instead, we are saying, “here are a few things that will lead you to be perceived as a better manager.” Our managers may not completely believe in the suggestions, but after they act on them and get better UFS scores, they may eventually internalize the behavior.

Id.

85. Meddings, supra note 44.

86. See infra notes 87-89 and accompanying text.

87. “This would disrupt too severely the necessary chain of command structure.” The Survey, supra note 69, comment 41; “[a UFS] might also limit a supervisors [sic] willingness to make the hard decisions and rate people fairly if they are concerned about how they are reported.” Id. comment 159.

88. “If we had a system to allow for these types of complaints we would overwhelm senior leaders with a lot of nonsense and reinforce the behavior,” Id. comment 93; “when junior and mid-career Soldiers are given an opportunity to provide input on their superiors’ performances, it often turns into a complaint-lodging session....These often spark unfounded investigations.” Id. comment 184; “[w]e also have the IG, EO, and open door complaint systems if things get bad. I’m not sure why adding a fourth complaint system would be helpful.” Id. comment 273.

89. Id.

90. See generally U.S. Dep’t of Army, Reg. 20-1, Inspector General Activities and Procedures (29 Nov. 2010) (RAR, 3 July 2012) [hereinafter AR 20-1].

91. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Reg. 600-20, Army Command Policy app. D (6 Nov. 2014).

92. See supra Part V, Section A.

93. This is because an Inspector General (IG) complaint is accustomed to identifying a specific wrong within the IG’s purview requiring an investigation and potential administrative action. AR 20-1, supra note 91, para. 1-6.

94. The Survey, supra note 2.

95. See supra Part V, Section A.

96. The Survey, supra note 2.

97. “[I]n my opinion a subordinate’s comments about their rater should ‘not’ be anonymous with [regards] to their rater’s rater...it should be kept anonymous from their rater.” Id. comment 116; “[i]f feedback provided to a supervisor’s superior were [sic] not anonymous and/or invisible to my immediate supervisor, I would not feel comfortable providing candid feedback.” Id. comment 115.

98. Garvin, supra note 8, at 12.

99. Google held seminars and workshops at every level of the company to educate employees and managers to ensure everyone was on the same page, both in the purpose of the UFS and the company’s expectations for its use. Id. at 13.