Thursday, November 17, 2011

Flattening the Chain of Command

Following the recent public news articles of the toilet troubles on CVN77, I think it is time to ask some questions that - at least today - may not have answers. Has Navy senior leadership created a cultural environment within the ranks that allows - even encourages - a sailor to go outside the chain of command and publicly air grievances on the internet? Do sailors now have the expectation that every electronic complaint should merit four-star attention? In doing so, is the system trending towards undermining the authority and responsibility of the Commanding Officer?

When a four-star admiral reads and personally participates in discussions about the Navy on blogs and message boards, it is and should be hailed as great dialogue and engagement. But what about when an admiral personally replies to electronic whines and rants posted by officers and sailors on blogs and message boards and publicly orders one star admirals to dig into these complaints? I understand not all of these situations are equal, but it is worth asking whether these type of actions by admirals is changing the culture of communication and undermining the authority of commanding officers. When senior leadership enters crisis mode every time negative press hits the wires, it can serve to encourage others to use this known, predictable response for their own benefit.

Instead of dropping a note in the CO’s suggestion box, making a suggestion on a survey, or even speaking with the chain of command, sailors are now finding it more effective and expeditious to rant and air grievances publicly on the internet. It is the responsibility of the leadership of the command to ensure that there is encouragement and positive reinforcement for making challenges known to the command. Yet, today, even if a command enjoys a command climate that encourages healthy internal dialogue, some now see the internet as the place to conduct that dialogue anyway.

When the admiral shows interest with an online post, that interest might be as simple and innocuous as a single question in an email to a chief of staff. But then that email takes on a life of its own as it travels downstream. Time pressure to respond to the admiral’s question falls squarely upon the shoulders of the commanding officer. As it should. The flag-level attention takes over the plan of the day and draws the command’s attention. What might be one of many competing command priorities suddenly might garner as much priority as a shipboard mishap. By allowing and encouraging the dialogue to go beyond the chain of command directly to senior flag officers, are we observing a mechanism forming for the statistical outlier to represent the population?

Is this just a part of life in the electronic age? Is the Navy simply “flattening the chain of command?” Are we simply observing the dynamics that comes with competing the hierarchical structure of the chain of command against the flattening of communications that has resulted from tools that allow greater accessibility? Is the Navy effectively balancing the flattening of and hierarchy of the chain of command?

If the Navy is willing to flatten the input side of public communications, the Navy should also be willing to flatten the feedback response. The proper response to a public complaint about a specific command should come from the commanding officer of that command, and no one else. In my opinion, the actions taken by Captain Luther regarding the toilet troubles on CVN77 is the model for dealing with these types of public complaints.

When sailors take grievances about a specific command publicly with intent of bypassing the chain of command, while it does represent a challenge to be addressed by the specific command, it also represents a challenge for those up the chain of command - all the way to the 4-stars. In my opinion, it is a legitimate challenge for admirals to know when and when not to engage public grievances about a specific command. I also tend to believe there is a broader issue for the Navy at large, for example, does it become paradoxical for someone in the Navy to publicly bash AM1 and and his mommy for blogging about toilet problems on CVN77 when USFF encourages and enables the same behavior publicly? I believe these are thin lines, and the questions are worth the discussion towards answers.

And to blunt the criticism ahead of time, as a civilian unassociated with the Navy - the paradox doesn't apply to me.

Finally, life in the Navy is not easy. The first response to challenges should always be to work together as a crew to find solutions, not find ways to blame the command.

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