Today I watched a squadron commander work out with his first sergeant for 45 minutes. Within this time, several members from their small unit filtered in and out of the room; none of these individuals were spoken to, or even acknowledged by their leadership. There was no eye contact, and they demonstrated avoidance by turning their back, turning the music up, and continuing the workout.

So let’s think about this for a minute: what message did that leadership duo just send to those unit members? Are they valued? Not worthy of a morning greeting or head nod when taking breaks between sets? Eye contact counts; body language is 90% of communication and is becoming less effective for those who communicate primarily through electronic means. Simple acknowledgement counts.

As human beings, we are wired for connection! These young Airmen, NCOs, and SNCOs want to connect with these leaders beyond an awards or punishment forum. They want to see you stop at the shop unannounced. They want to be seen as a valued member of the team and feel that they matter; but the truth is that with this particular leadership team, they don’t…not until there is an award to be received or punishment to be given. Eye contact and acknowledgement will go a long ways for performance and motivation by a commander, chief, or first sergeant, if it is genuine…because if it is not, the Airmen will know.

What I watched in 45 minutes was disappointment, and a slow degradation of motivation, caring, loyalty to the unit and mission in multiple future leaders. Just as leaders have expectations of us, we have expectations of them; it costs them nothing to make eye contact and acknowledge the member but a few minutes of their workout, yet to win that lost loyalty back they will have to work twice as hard now.

How do we as NCOs and SNCOs fix this? Unfortunately, we cannot fix leadership. We can hopefully provide feedback through more means than the unit climate assessments, but by then it is too late. As a Superintendent, I try to counterbalance the lack of leadership involvement by being present physically with the door open if they need to discuss anything. Our conversations have ranged from all over the realm of personal to professional, but my NCOs know they are valued members of the team and how their contributions count to improve the mission.

People don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. Eye contact and acknowledgement can make the difference between a less or more motivated Airman, someone on the fence about staying in or getting out, or even someone considering suicide.

If nothing else, please take some time today to truly see your Airmen, and acknowledge them…even those you don’t like or who are struggling. You never know what will drive them to motivate themselves. Small things matter, eye contact matters.

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