Old Questions, Constant Themes

By John Grover, Head, Organizational Learning and Development North America, CEVA logistics

John Grover, Head, Organizational Learning and Development North America, CEVA logistics

As two young staff sergeants of the US Army Reserve’s (USAR) 96th ARCOM and charged with the formation of the USAR’s first Organizational Effectiveness (OE) unit, our initial prime directive for this new unit was to understand why Reservists would or would not “re-up” or re-enlist in the Reserve. At the time, the 96th was part of 6th Army.

While we were originally members of a quartermaster (supply) company, our company captain held the notion that the USAR needed an OE unit. He identified the two of us as having experience in this area, and subsequently volunteeredus to the commanding general (CG) of the 96th for this purpose. Our CG had thoughts along similar lines, and subsequently agreed to the idea.

Our approach to this 10,000 member organization would be to employ an action research model using survey guided feedback. We would use SPSS to help with our analysis.It was thought thismethodology would most likely yield indicators of the answers we sought.

It was a difficult time for the US Army, between the years of Vietnam and the Gulf Wars, and the Army’s morale was probably at its lowest point during the 20th Century. As a consequence, rumors abounded that military enlisted personnel (EM’s) were making attempts to organize with labor union representation. The military draft had ended, and Project VOLAR (Volunteer Army) enlistment had begun. With tensions rising in Europe, instability in the Middle East, and uncertainty in Asia, more understanding was needed of what attracted people to enlist and once trained, induced them to re-enlist once their original commitment was completed.

"Help people chart their way forward, understand clearly what expectations and opportunities were, and they were more likely to stay with the organization"

Our questionnaire of 132 questions was distributed while we began in-person interviews of enlisted soldiers throughout the 96th. Results from our questionnaire and interviews were compiled, adding up to 1400 pages of printout. Responses consisted of some wry observations, such as one soldier commenting that he wondered if the US Army “had a basic plot to it.”

Our evaluation of the data and the very human responses to interviews suggested a correlation between the quantity and quality of performance reviews and the tendency to re-enlist. Those of us who either are or have been members of the US Army realize that there are times when it produces confusing situations, just as any large organization tends to do. However, the US Army does have very detailed and specific career paths outlined for its occupational specialties. If an enlisted person was having an annual performance review, he or she could be told by their interviewer what their next training steps would be, most likely when it would happen, where it would occur, and what that would prepare them for in their military career. Unfortunately, our data also revealed that for enlisted personnel, these annual performance reviews were only being conducted 20% of the time.

After compiling the data and preparing our report, our presentation was made to our commanding general and his staff. Even though there were two of us making the presentation, as a young staff sergeant facing a room full of captains, majors, colonels, and the CG, it was somewhat intimidating. We arrived at our conclusion, showing the correlation between the number (20%) of annual performance reviews conducted and the tendency to re-enlist, when the CG called a halt to the presentation.It was a tense moment. Seated for the presentation toward the back of the room behind his officer cadre, he asked all those present who had experienced their annual personal performance reviews with their superior officers to raise their hands. About 20% of the hands in the room went up.

I learned two important lessons that day. One was that if it isn’t happening at the top of an organization, it won’t be happening at the middle or bottom of the organization. I had heard that before, but I was seeing it demonstrated in real time, in real life before me, and validating our findings. The second lesson was more nuanced and inferential in nature. Our findings pointed to people in organizations unconsciously asking the question, “What’s going to happen to me?” A performance review which helped answer this question was a key indicator as to whether an EM would re-enlist. Help people chart their way forward, understand clearly what expectations and opportunities were, and they were more likely to stay with the organization. This one facet exceeded the importance of pay, association with others, engagement, and sense of duty, among other variables within our study regarding retention.

Admittedly, decades have passed since that experience. Technology has naturally advanced along with our ability and methods of analyzing data. Still, it is people and their behaviors, motivators, stressors, styles and preferences we continue to concern ourselves with in our organizations and society. We dissect populations into generations, and detail their group traits. In other words, we generalize. Hopefully, we also begin to understand that each person is an individual with different experiences, traits, and their own unique bit of genius.

Yet there will always be some basic commonalities among us. If our leadership is not demonstrating the desired behaviors, the remaining members of our organizations won’t either.And if leaders do not help members of their organization answer that question, “What’s going to happen to me,” they will find themselves with less than satisfactory engagement and retention. It has been this way for a very long time.

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