5 Ways the U.S. Army Builds a Better Workplace Culture

We can all learn about workplace culture from the U.S. Army. (Photo via 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cav Div, Flickr)

Learn about building a great workplace culture from the U.S. Army. (Photo via 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cav Div, Flickr)

The U.S. Army has enviable workplace culture.

Tens of thousands of positive Indeed and Glassdoor reviews show the Army has the kind of workplace culture that cultivates happy, motivated and loyal employees.

Just listen to current and former Army employees rave about it:

“I love this job because every customer’s issue is unique; you must learn to use your colleagues and resources effectively. There is no such thing as a unfixable problem, every issue will be resolved. I love this job because it’s rewarding and gratifying.” — IT Specialist

“The United States Army is one of the few jobs that bring people together from around the country.” — Sergeant

“The hardest thing about the job was actually leaving. This was the best job I have had.” — Former Supply Specialist

“The U.S Army was a great career. Every day was new, and you expected to be challenged to better yourself in every aspect of living.” — Former Engineer

What does the Army do differently? And can it be applied in a corporate setting?

A recent article in KelloggInsight (the publication of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management) examines the Army’s “culture of responsibility.” The authors explore how a “hierarchically structured organization like the military” builds the kind of environment “where people are willing to take the fall when things go wrong.”

Responsibility is an important part of any good workplace culture. It leads to better communication, faster problem-solving and a sense of community. But beyond responsibility, KelloggInsight’s examination of the U.S. Army management model reveals several great takeaways for building excellent overall workplace culture.

How the U.S. Army Builds a Great Workplace Culture

What is the U.S. Army doing to keep employees so happy and productive on a large scale?

1. Make it easy to share ideas

The Army uses an interdepartmental communication network of message boards, conference calls, email blasts, after-action reviews and more to help employees share information and solutions.

“If you have tactics, techniques, procedures, orders, processes — whatever was working in your unit — you can offer that so that anybody in that position across the Army can look at it and use it,” Col. Brian Halloran tells KelloggInsight.

2. Empower solutions, not blame

It’s striking how willing U.S. Army employees are to take blame.

“It wouldn’t be much of an overstatement to say that they are almost competing to take the blame: ‘No, it was me…,’ ‘It was my guys,’ ‘No it was me,’” says Ned Smith, associate professor of management and organization at the Kellogg School.

“That’s not something you readily see in corporate America,” Smith says.

One reason for this is in how the Army treats blame. The Army expects employees to move quickly past the blame and onto the next step: solutions. The at-fault employee is expected to then help find a solution. That means it isn’t enough for the employee to give an excuse for their mistake.

“It can’t just be, ‘excuse me’ or ‘I screwed up, I’m clueless,'” Halloran says.

Instead, the employee has to be specific, identify the root cause of the mistake (“I skipped step number five, and here’s why”), and then try to come up with a way to fix it.

3. Decide promotions on results, not on mistakes made along the way

Officers compete across the Army for promotions, not just among their brigade. Significantly, this means the evaluators on the promotion review board do not directly supervise the leaders they are evaluating.

It’s a setup that gives officers less incentive to cover up their mistakes in order to get a promotion.

“When a leader knows that what matters are the overall performance of the unit and the improvement of the unit as a whole, they are far more likely to openly discuss what didn’t go right,” Halloran tells KelloggInsight.

4. Seek feedback (and be personal)

None of us likes it when other people make our job harder to do. Halloran says this fundamental truth about human nature informs the way he seeks feedback about operations.

He used to frame questions to colleagues in general terms, for example: “Hey, I’m questioning why we do this, what do you think?” and found he really didn’t get the feedback he needed.

So he learned to ask in a way that made his colleagues see how the issue might affect them, their team, their workload, etc. By making the issue personal, his colleagues were suddenly eager to discuss any issues and problem-solve.

5. Recognize early, recognize often!

Competition can get fierce — and not in a productive way — when accolades and rewards are perceived as scarce. In the clamor for what little recognition there is, “even stalwart leaders may feel tempted to wash their hands of any mishaps,” according to KelloggInsight.

Recognition can’t be a winner-take-all, zero-sum game. This breeds dishonesty and irresponsibility.

In an appreciation-rich culture, employees have less to fear. Not only are they more likely to speak up about problems, they’re more likely to be open, engaged and motivated to solve them.

The U.S. Army takes recognition seriously. The Morale, Welfare and Recreation division has a robust Employee Award Program that makes it easy for Army leaders to recognize deserving employees and facilitates peer-to-peer recognition.

What have you learned from the U.S. Army that can help build a more successful workplace culture in your organization? Let us know!

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