Most people become introverted when they talk to their organization’s leadership. It is a common reaction to this situation; it is also a barrier to real and effective communication. Power distance creates this barrier. Power distance is the degree to which it is agreed that power should be distributed unequally and favor those at higher levels—an acceptance of such a concept. By joining the military you are to some degree playing a part in the acceptance that at a lower rank you do not have as much power as those at higher ranks. Most would agree a general officer has more power than an airman first class. My perception is this ‘agreement’ creates a communication barrier. As a leader, you must help your subordinates overcome this barrier by doing so yourself. Consciously or unconsciously, we apply barriers to communication in different ways by framing a person or situation according to our perception of them.
I once read an article about leadership that highlighted the nature of this concept. The article’s author couldn’t resist keeping his titles out of his “written by” introduction. “Dr., Chief Master Sergeant” preceded the author’s name. Immediately that set the tone for the article. It told me the view of power distance was high in the eyes of the author, and the article’s topics, tone, and message reinforced my perception. I’ve also read something referred to as the ‘Chief’s Basic Rules’, a list of ‘rules’ of what amounted to guidelines regarding the benevolence of chief master sergeants (likely a light-hearted comical piece rather than actual guidelines…?). A few of the excerpts from this ‘rule book’ highlight the power distance dilemma: “Rule 1: The Chief is always right!”, “In the event a subordinate is right, refer to [the first rule]”, “Whomsoever may enter the Chief’s office with an idea of their own must leave the office with the Chief’s idea”, and “If, in your lamentable ignorance, you fail to grasp the truth of these rules, fear not. Return to [the first rule]”. While these wildly comical (I hope) ‘rules’ are meant to emphasize the authority of the rank of chief master sergeant, it also highlights power distance issues—a blindness to the contributions of subordinates based on perceptions (which can be a perception by both the superior and/or the subordinate). An airman first class will not likely openly discuss various personal problems with a chief master sergeant even if asked. The Airman will likely give the token, ‘I’m good, Chief, how are you?’ answer. That barrier exists there.
There is also a fear that if a subordinate tells, say, a chief about a personal problem, and that problem is brought to the attention of the master sergeant in charge of the Airman’s duty section, it will make that master sergeant look bad. No. We must take our ego out of such things. Whether our subordinates tell us or our boss about a problem, we shouldn’t focus on the fact they ‘jumped a link’ in the chain of command. If that chief makes him or herself available to that subordinate, so be it. It has to be about the subordinate and honest communication. Things like that are situational; as a leader of said Airmen, keep your ego out of it. If your boss comes to you about a new problem with a subordinate, discuss that problem, don’t chastise the Airman for jumping over you. It may also be that your subordinate doesn’t quite feel comfortable telling you because of their perception of how you might react.
Recognition of one’s position and respect for rank and authority is key, but we should not be blinded by it or allow it to plague our conversations. Every person in an organization has something to contribute and we shouldn’t arbitrarily dismiss someone based solely on their rank and pay grade. Life experiences differ and the military is a melting pot of diversity. I used to work with an Airman that held a bachelor’s degree in forensic science. Before he joined, he used to respond to crime scenes as part of a medical examiner’s team to investigate the cause of death for people involved in murders, suicides, and accidents. He described to me things I couldn’t imagine seeing for myself and he found that work fascinating. I was in awe; here was a person at the lowest tier of the enlisted force, as an airman first class, with such life experiences, toting around a toolbox and fixing aircraft. He had joined the Air Force for a steady paycheck to provide for his family since he had been laid off from his position with the medical examiner’s office.
I’ve learned how to minimize the adverse effects my rank has on different situations. During a ‘red ball’, an aircraft is having maintenance issues while the aircrew is on the aircraft preparing to fly. I ensure the technicians respond to the call and I give them time to examine the issue. A ‘red ball’ can be a very nerve-wracking situation for maintainers, often times as a result of perceived pressures. They want to ensure it is a successful launch. Instead of adding more pressure to the situation by jumping on the aircraft and hovering over the technicians, I will often linger away from the aircraft, only viewing it from my vehicle sitting on the flightline while allowing the technicians to work the problem. I will board the aircraft and speak with the technicians about what the specifics of the problems are and what they can do to fix it after I’ve given it some time or if I’ve been summoned to the aircraft—calmly. I ensure my general demeanor is calm, even if I am ‘freaking out’ inside. Your subordinates feel and react to that if you exude such feelings. My rank and position unduly influences the situation and can create problems. I try to minimize that by being cognizant of my actions aboard the aircraft and how I speak with the technicians.
Do not lead a conversation with rank and position; that frames the discussion immediately and the subordinate member in the conversation will become very stiff and quiet, making the conversation awkward and non-productive. You may be tempted to view someone lower ranking and younger as a kid that just left home to join the military, but do not fall victim to that trap. Letting ego or a general presumption play into a situation or conversation makes it non-productive. Many times, people do not wear their experiences on their face or reveal their intelligence or maturity immediately. We fall into that trap by making assumptions that our rank trumps everything and that what we say is the final word, no matter what our subordinate has to say. If you boil it down, yes, rank trumps many things, but only to a point. It needs to be tempered by knowing your people and understanding them. Ask open ended questions, don’t sit across from them with a desk between you, talk in the hallway, informally, as professionals with a mutual respect, and actually have an open door policy if you tell people you do.