The Culture We Need

  • Published
  • By Col Ken Eaves
  • 131st Bomb Wing commander

We often talk about the culture that we want - more accurately - the culture that we need. However, defining that culture is defining the end state. We often gloss over, or even blow off, describing the path to get there.  

I have the privilege of teaching the B-2 instructor upgrade class called Fundamentals of Instruction. In that class, we spend one-third of our time talking about human behavior, because without an understanding of human behavior we cannot truly instruct an individual to achieve an improved end state. One of the major topics in the human behavior block is Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.”

Maslow’s theory is that for an individual to attain self-actualization, that individual must first have four levels of needs met.   After teaching one of my classes, it dawned on me that this had a much wider and direct application to our organization.

But, before we get into the application, we need to have a rudimentary understanding of what Maslow theorizes. At the top of the pyramid is self-actualization. Self-actualization can be more easily grasped if you understand that all he is t

alking about is achieving one’s full potential. This is not to say that Maslow’s theory can create a super person. To achieve one’s full potential is to simply be the best person within one’s given capabilities.

With that said, mission execution, readiness, or any other objective seems simple to attain if each individual in an organization is able to reach their full potential. However, there are several factors and needs that must be met for the potential to be realized. Maslow broke these needs out into four specific categories and put those needs of order of which needed to be met first from bottom to top.

The basic of needs are physiological. Physiological needs cover a wide variety of needs like breathing, eating, drinking, etc. Simply stated, how can you focus on doing your job if you haven’t eaten or slept in days or if you are having your house repossessed? Do you know the Airmen around you well enough to know if their basic needs are being met?

The next level up the pyramid is safety and security, which can apply to both the physical and psychological. If you are physically afraid of the job you’ve been tasked to do, it is unlikely that you can do that job well. Psychologically, if you do not feel safe or secure in your environment, at work or at home, you’ll have similar barriers to getting the job done. Do you know if any of the folks you work with daily or at drill are struggling with safety or security at home or work?

Love and belongingness is the third level and seems to make people feel uncomfortable, because we have made them uncomfortable words over time. Interestingly, a study in AFGSC did a word comparison between AFM 35-15 from 1948 to AFDD 1-1 from 2011. The 1948 manual on command used the word “love” 13 times in the manual.

Would you like to guess how many times “love” was used in the 2011 manual…zero. What did the greatest generation know about leadership that we’ve consciously, or unconsciously, removed from our vocabulary? I’m not suggesting that we run around giving hugs and telling everyone that we love them…in fact, please don’t. However, we need to remember that we are in the profession of arms. We are called to lay down our lives, if necessary, in the line of duty. There is no greater demonstration of love than that. That is how you should look at the men and women you serve with.

I like to use my relationship with my kids when I talk about love. My kids are not the gushy lovie-dovie types, surprise…they were raised by me. However, they do respond to time spent with them. Whether it be date nights, practicing sports, or watching Marvel movies, this is the love that they look for. We need to make time in our organizations to directly interact and converse with our fellow Airmen, our brothers and sisters in arms…each and every one of them.

The final need is self-esteem. Esteem is defined as a favorable opinion, regard or respect. Maslow highlighted that if an individual felt esteem from his or her own environment, that likely would lead to self-esteem. Without the external influence, an individual is left to their own ability to generate esteem, which depending upon their past, they may not have the capacity to do. This is not to imply that we should go all Stuart Smalley at work (I’ll let you Google that one). I mentioned in a commentary last year (The Art of the Debrief; July 20, 2018) that we need to debrief. We have to talk about mission execution, successes and failures. Failure does not have to be a bad discussion if addressed correctly. It is a learning point that helps us become better. It’s in the presentation, and it’s in the reception. Present the facts, good and bad, in a non-judgmental manner… receive feedback without taking it personal.

For sake of this discussion, let’s agree that in most cases, only after all of these needs are met can an individual reach their full-potential. So what? What do we do with this information? How do we apply it to the shop, office, and organization?

These are actually not difficult questions to answer…you need to ensure your span of control is small enough to be individually engaged. You need to have enough courage to ask questions, and you need to care enough to listen. That’s it. Now, implementing these three things is a little more difficult.

Span of control, for this discussion, is simply the number of subordinates that in individual has responsibility for. There are a number of authors, books and articles that address this issue, but for sake of time, there seems to be a consensus that small groups of three to six are the sweet spot.

Maintaining this reduced span of control allows a leader to be interactive and engaged with the team and maintain an appropriate amount of situational awareness on each member. This is not a hard and fast number but a general rule of thumb. While some military organizations are already organized like this, some organizations would have to informally adjust the org diagram to create the right span of control throughout.

Courage to ask is actually the most difficult one of the three to implement, as most of us aren’t inherently comfortable with this level of engagement. We are good with a “how you are doing” type hallway question as long as we only get back an expected “I’m good.” Courage is required to ask “how are you doing” when you know something is wrong or think that you might get back a tough answer. Courage is required to ensure you engage on every one of Maslow’s levels with your entire span of control. Most of us weren’t trained to engage this way, but I can tell you from experience, it just takes practice. It will not get easier the first time and probably not the fifth time, but it will become easier. And, actually over time, will likely become normal.

Finally, to care enough to listen, is to put yourself and your environment aside long enough to actually hear what the other person is saying. Don’t work on your comebacks. Don’t get ready to share your same - or worse - experience. Don’t worry about your calendar. Be empathetic – not sympathetic. Make direct eye contact and actively listen. Believe it or not, sometimes this will be all that is necessary to make a difference. Sometimes you will need to respond with empathy. Sometimes you will need to escort the other person to get assistance… here’s where courage will kick in again.

Team, we don’t need programs in the Air Force to help us with resiliency. We don’t need gimmicks to help us achieve greater readiness or meet mission goals. We only need to reach our full-potential. We only need organizations to be set up to allow courageous Airmen the ability to actively engage, not because they want to, but because it is in their nature. Because it is the culture. This is the culture we need.