I recently had a discussion with a peer over SNCO stratifications. I had been transparent from the outset of the process by letting those I rated on know that I either was or wasn’t going to push them forward for stratification—and why. Even as that process continued through the squadron and group, I was transparent about their potential to be one of the recommendations at the wing—or if they dropped off from the final grouping headed to the wing and why. My peer did not do that; in fact, he had been directed to not share that information with those he rated on at all. Not only was there a disparity between how we each treated our SNCOs, but it shows a larger cultural issue—a lack of trust and courage.
I can remember my time as a first-time eligible MSgt. Aside from not getting actual feedback other than day-to-day critiques of what should have happened on the flightline while I was a young Pro Super, I distinctly remember the veiled stratification discussions that everyone speculated about. Following those speculations were rumors of the ‘good ol’ boy’ system in full form, the cynicism among my peers that built up over the darkness surrounding the process and discussion about the possibilities of any ‘silver bullets’ that were sure to make one shine for a strat. It drove a deep sense of cynicism in me for a long time because, after all, why would I trust the system when it wouldn’t even give me the dignity to rate my performance well or have candid conversations?
When we don’t talk to our people and have hard conversations, we are abdicating our responsibility as leaders. Kim Scott, in her book ‘Radical Candor’, discusses what she calls our ‘work face’, a set of adaptive behaviors that help us avoid conflict and criticism. When we don’t have conversations with our people because of what might happen, we are protecting ourselves. Years ago, I saw a potential worse-case scenario play out with forced distribution. After being fully up front with a SSgt about his ranking at the squadron, since he dropped off the final recommendation list, he became very emotional. While he didn’t handle it well, it did drive a hard conversation between him and his rater. People are messy and not everyone will take that kind of information well. We as leaders shouldn’t shy away from being candid. Colonel Jason Lamb, aka ‘Ned Stark’ in an article published in May 2019 noted that the Air Force has a problem with being candid, referring at the time to officer promotion systems. I think Colonel Lamb’s argument could easily translate to the enlisted corps. The fear in these conversations can be removed and trust built with performance discussions made easier by another component—care.
Its doubtful that a perfect supervisor exists. My time as a supervisor was one where I sometimes stumbled through the process and that often felt awkward. At the time, I was missing a key component—continuous feedback and relationship building. Relationships, I argue, are the key component to making this entire endeavor easier. Making time for those you rate on—not just through formal meetings or day-to-day tasking—to just talk in a non-judgmental environment can make all the difference in the world. Admittedly, my calendar gets clogged up with spotted 30-minute appointments for each of my ratees, some of whom work off-shifts, but I believe this to be a foundational activity for a high functioning organization. I mentioned care above—when you make this time for your folks, you signal that you care about them. We talk in platitudes about getting to know your people, but we let other things get in the way–make it deliberate.
So, when you’re thinking about not telling your ratees what the stratification discussion holds for them, think about the damage you can cause when they have no information and go to sign their EPR—are you protecting yourself, them or the organization?