Misinformation bias – I’ve run into it in various circles: social events, in my career search, my last job, and I’ve heard stories from fellow veterans concerning their encounters with it. I’m amazed at how often I hear intelligent people making ignorant comments about the military and the men and women who wear the uniform. Strikingly, the view that seems most common is that the military is full of robots who blindly follow orders while running around with guns and yelling all day. While most will not admit to this, it is apparent in what they do and say, especially in the context of job hiring decisions. Translation of military experience is one of the largest hurdles the veteran must overcome, and poorly formed biases make this even more difficult.
In examining this bias, I’ve determined the roots are multi-faceted, but there are two primary factors:
- A general lack of knowledge about the military, what it does, how it operates, and who fills the ranks
- Hollywood misrepresentations
Given the lack of knowledge on the topic, assumptions are made to fill the void. And therein lies the problem: assumptions are shortcuts the brain makes based on previous experience. When an individual lacks that experience, the brain sub-consciously connects the dots with the impressions of movies, conversations, and anything related. Since movies are designed to feel real and immerse the viewer in the experience, it’s not surprising we make assumptions based on what we see on the screen.
“Prudence demands we challenge our assumptions.” – GFMiller
A Harvard Business Review article, 9 Habits That Lead to Terrible Decisions, cites the number one factor in poor decision making as laziness: the “failure to check facts, to take initiative, and confirm assumptions, or to gather additional input.” Prudence demands we challenge our assumptions in order to make good decisions.
4 Myths About The Military
1. Service members mindlessly follow orders and don’t think critically
The thought that military members are drones and “just do what they are told” is such a gross fallacy, it undermines basic rules of human nature. If we review human behavior and understand that people are emotional and logical creatures who want to be trusted and challenged, then we know that any social contract between a leader and a follower would crumble under that arrangement. Just as in the private sector, the best military teams function in a collaborative manner exercising trust and respect; leaders empower their followers, who are the subject matter experts that often devise the most creative solutions. In this way, the cumulative value of the team can be greater than the sum of the parts.
Some will be quick to point out that military members are bound by law and must obey the orders of those who are appointed over them. This is true, technically, but back to human behavior – in any environment, if a human is forced to complete a task, he or she will do it begrudgingly and in the most inefficient and time consuming manner possible; the end result will fall short of any reasonable standard. If both the means and the outcome are poor, then we have an inefficient and ineffective team member. Compounding this with many other people begrudgingly doing their work equals disastrous outcomes for any team, especially one where life itself can hang in the balance. Military leaders understand this, and contrary to popular belief, they empower their team members and challenge them to step up to the plate. In Hollywood movies we often see the execution phase of an operation, but we rarely see the collaborative planning sessions or the operations briefs where the leader explains the who, what, when, where, and why; the mission & desired end-state.
In his book, Level Three Leadership, James G. Clawson defines the “Leadership Point of View” as:
- Seeing what needs to be done
- Understanding all the underlying forces at play in a situation
- Having the courage to initiate action to make things better
From day one, military members of all ranks are taught to take action to solve problems. Clawson’s “Leadership Point of View” accurately depicts what the service strives to ingrain into its members. Due to the hostile operating environments where situations change rapidly and resources are not always stable, the military utilizes a de-centralized form of command and control. This means the leaders closest to the situation have the authority to make decisions which can have a strategic impact.
2. Military leadership equals yelling and cruel discipline
When most people think of the military they think of drill instructors yelling at recruits; they may flash back to a scene from Full Metal Jacket or recall a story about boot camp from their 2nd cousin Jimmy. First and foremost, realize that the real military is nothing like boot camp. Second, when yelling is used in the military, it is used as a tool for very specific goals:
- In boot camp to simulate stress and break you down to your core prior to building you back up. This is the same environment where intense physical training sessions are used as disciplinary tactics. Once in operating forces, administrative measures are used for discipline much like private industry.
- On the battlefield to communicate messages in a loud environment. We see this in the movies continuously, but we never see the collaborative and analytical planning process that took place previous to mission execution. We also never see the six month pre-deployment training phase where a unit is establishing their internal processes and procedures.
- To call attention to a behavior that is so egregious an impression must be made on the offender. Self explanatory and occurs in private industry as well. When you know someone has been trained in the proper way to do something, yet they do it in an unsafe manner that puts undue risk on others…
Generally speaking, military leaders strive to empower their teams at all levels. The domineering form of power displayed in Hollywood movies as yelling and cruel punishment is rarely used. Are there abuses of power? Yes, of course, just as there are in private industry.
3. War Veterans are Psychologically unstable and could explode any time
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is real and should be taken seriously. Not only does our culture lack understanding and treatment options for those with mental illnesses, but we even go as far as to ostracize them by means of cruel jokes or simple dis-association. As a culture we have a long way to go.
Most assumptions about PTSD are wrong. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, bad dreams, avoidance, depression, or anger. Additionally, symptoms can make it difficult to “do daily tasks such as, sleeping, eating, or concentrating.” Notice none of these symptoms include “going postal” or harming others. Sure anger can be a symptom, but many people in the private sector could be classified as “angry.” The most common way PTSD plays out is through withdrawal and depression, internal issues that would not affect the safety of others.
That being said, not everyone who has been in a combat situation has PTSD, and not everyone who has been to a combat zone has been in combat. Remember that the military trains for combat, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that training can help to prepare military members for its psychological rigors.
4. The military as an organization does not function like private industry
Although the military does not have Profit & Loss (P&L) responsibility in the private sector traditional sense, there are definitely standards for managing other forms of capital. U.S. tax dollars fund everything from military paychecks to equipment, training, operations, and maintenance. Those budgets are managed closely and service members are held accountable for losses, over-spending, and negligence. Profit is measured in the form of organizational effectiveness; rather than measuring in a currency of dollars, the military measures effectiveness in its ability to meet objectives. This is achieved through training initiatives which invest in human capital.
The U.S. Military is also one of the world’s largest logistics networks and routinely moves supplies and equipment around the world. This requires coordination between the various departments of defense, civil agencies, and foreign governments. For an individual unit to be effective, these resources must be aligned and optimized. Private companies have similar needs. Although not all companies operate on a global scale, employing those who “think globally, act locally” is good for business. The military is full of these strategy types, and companies who are not utilizing veterans from this arena are missing out on a wealth of experience.
Communication – it is the crux of success and permeates all. Organizations with communication issues have resultant culture issues which filter down to operating inefficiencies – “bottom line” issues. The military stresses the importance of communication, specifically in a push-model. Military leaders depend on timely intelligence and rely on information being pushed up the chain of command. Military members at all levels understand the importance of communication, and this becomes second nature to the average veteran. This bodes well for his or her civilian employer.
Commonalities of Veterans
There are many soft-skills and personality traits that the military strives to ingrain in its members at all levels. These are easily transferable to the private sector, but they are often overlooked. They are also difficult to develop in private industry; the lives of others sometimes hang in the balance in the military and provide ample opportunity to exercise such skills and traits.
Common soft-skills veterans posses:
- Integration – working in a large organization with many resources and various departments, veterans have become expert integrators who can coordinate operations on a global scale.
- Communication – Various requirements are levied from different levels of command, often requiring the veteran to master communication to executives, managers, and front line operators. Many have experience developing presentations, reports, correspondence, and SOPs, of a detailed technical nature.
- Collaboration – Veterans understand the true value of teamwork and vetting solutions to peers and subject matter experts. From day one, Marines are paired into “buddy pairs” for training. This continues into operating forces where groups of buddy pairs become a team, squad, platoon, company etc. The success of all military teams lies in its reliance on teamwork.
Common traits veterans posses:
- Integrity – Doing the right thing even when it’s difficult, and doing things right the first time. Excellence is demanded and expected of service members at all levels.
- Decisiveness – Service members are instilled with a bias for action in the face of uncertainty. This is framed in the context of the 70% solution; in leadership, you will never have the full picture or the 100% solution. Choose the BEST option, and make a move. Learn from your mistakes.
- Disciplined – The power of positive habits is well understood by most men and women in uniform. Most associate physical fitness to discipline, but that is only one aspect. Being disciplined is a state of mind and extends to all aspects of life.
- Forward-Looking – This ties in with the “leadership point of view” discussed earlier. In short, military members are well accustomed to working in rapidly changing environments. This forces them to be dynamic and anticipate how situations may unfold.
- Marine Corps Leadership Traits – these are the official leadership traits that the U.S. Marine Corps strives to imbue into every Marine, regardless of rank.
Functional Specialties of Veterans
In addition to the soft-skills which are difficult to develop, veterans also bring functional expertise to the table. A veteran’s Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) is his or her functional specialty, and there are as many of them as there are job types in the private sector. A few examples from the Marine Corps and some very, very rough equivalents:
Sample of U.S. Marine Corps MOS and Rough Civilian Equivalents
Again, acknowledging the principles of human behavior and organizational leadership are universal, you can see how easily a veteran with such a functional skill set could translate his experience to the private sector. However, there are also many functional skill sets gained which you will not find in an MOS title, for example, project management.
For those wearing Hiring Manager shoes, consider hiring veterans into your organization and give some real thought and analysis to their military experience. When properly challenged, veterans not only have the capability to learn quickly and succeed, but will also add tremendous value to the organization. Utilizing the “Leadership Point of View”, veterans are naturally equipped to tackle some of the most demanding problems in a way that fosters teamwork, collaboration, and personnel development.
Bias is the result of our brain’s attempt to “connect the dots” and make a decision. However, we must carefully consider what experiences (or lack thereof) form the basis for our assumptions. Where the military is concerned, there is little replacement for direct experience, and Hollywood has provided an array of erroneous replacement material.
Challenge your assumptions, and look beneath the surface!