This article is based on my experience over the last 6 years, particularly over the past 12 months, as a Regimental Sergeant Major. Whilst posted to the Warrant Officer and Non Commissioned Officers' Academy in 2011-2014, I noticed a slow decline in instructor skills, all Corps soldier knowledge (section commander skills) and the general understanding (standards and policy) of the broader Army. This generalised acceptance of moving away from a standard is known as normalised deviance. In the last 12 months, I have been able to analyse this problem from a different perspective and believe I can contribute to the discussion on how to stop this gradual decline in standards and create an environment where high standards are valued.
In this article, I will recommend strategies to overcome shortfalls and the relaxation of Army standards. These endorsements for change arise from reflecting on my own practice, and on catalysts of successful change in the past.
Soldiers today are every bit as capable as in years gone by; drawing comparisons between generations is difficult and fraught with danger. Every generation has had questions raised about quality and professionalism; thus, I will argue that the decline of standards within units is due to a failure to recognise the ‘return on investment’ for being ‘brilliant at the basics’. Units investing sufficient time to educate soldiers in ‘the basics’ – those skills outside of Corps-specific skills – is essential if they are to achieve automatic professional mastery. I will discuss Army standards and whether normalised deviance has contributed to the apparent dropping of standards. I will discuss whether coaching and mentoring are being effectively utilised within Army and define the difference between the two. Finally, I will give advice on how to raise the standard of soldiering through the use of unit battle rhythms and programs.
Effects of normalised deviance
So what is 'normalised deviance'?
'The gradual process through which unacceptable practice or standards become acceptable. As the deviant behaviour is repeated without catastrophic results, it becomes the social norm for the organisation.'
I have seen many examples of normalised deviance in my career, from minor standards issues through to larger policy related disobedience. These deviances are seen both on operations and as part of barracks routine; thus claims that ‘it doesn’t happen when it matters’ are unfounded.
The effect of normalised deviance can be enduring and costly. Often junior non-commissioned officers (JNCO), senior non-commissioned officers (SNCO) and junior officers scoff (silently) when you mention such things as dress standards, haircuts or when you correct them for being incorrectly dressed. These issues are viewed as insignificant and waved off as unimportant, so I often find myself reciting the following statement:
'If you as a leader pick and choose what policy, directive or standard to follow, do not be upset, surprised, or angry when your soldiers have that same approach to your direction or orders. The easy fix is to correct those faults when and as you see them. If soldiers respect you, fault correcting them will not change that fact.'
Few people enjoy correcting standards; the acceptance that SNCOs and Warrant Officers (WOs) relish the task of maintaining standards through behaviour modification is false. Personally I find it frustrating. Policies and standards are taught and enforced at ab initio level; from that point on a lack of personal discipline, poor professionalism (normalised deviance) and laziness cause the decline in standards. As leaders we must challenge the norm and pursue the reasons ‘why’ so that we can break the cycle of normalised deviance. Once way we can do this is through mentoring and coaching.
Mentoring and Coaching
Before answering whether Army effectively mentors and coaches, we must first understand the difference between them:
Coaching: Talking to a person, identifying what he/she needs, and developing an action plan. The emphasis is on instructing, assessing, and monitoring. Coaching is a short-term task or skills-based undertaking.
Mentoring: A more informal association focused on building a two-way (either individual or small group), relationship for long-term career movement. A mentor teaches and gives advice to those who are less experienced.
‘A coach has some great questions for your answers; a mentor has some great answers for your questions'
The majority of large-scale, successful civilian organisations have established formal mentoring programs. In comparison, the Army—one of Australia’s largest employers, has not. Certainly, there are no formal mentoring programs at the soldier/JNCO level. Is it due to a lack of understanding about the mentoring process? Or is it a cultural belief that there is no value in mentoring?
Within the ranks, coaching is certainly undertaken at the grass-roots level in the form of fault correction, passing on new skills or monitoring/supervising. These 'coaching' skills can be developed as part of a JNCO/SNCO training program that targets skills normally not required in the day-to-day running of a unit. I have used ‘Deliver Army Training’ (drill, weapons and theory) imbedded into the regimental training program to get JNCOs to understand the ‘softer’ skills required to train and coach others. These skills have a huge impact on a soldiers development in the short and long-term. In general, Army knows how to coach.
On the other hand, mentoring creates opportunities to gather your soldiers and leadership group together and have frank and honest discussions about the direction and difficulties facing your unit (small team). Building a two-way (either individual or small group) relationship between experienced experts and the new wave of leaders establishes a culture where all team members have a sense of ownership of any issues. This facilitates forums where practical and feasible solutions are raised in response to problems, rather than an expectation that ‘someone’ else will fix it.
'The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves'
– Steven Spielberg
Mentoring and coaching are areas of leadership and development that I believe are slowly diminishing. I believe the reason for this decline is an unwillingness to fault correct and a lack of confidence to instruct (transfer knowledge). These fading talents are essential to grow an educated, considered, skilled and balanced future leader. Taking the time to educate and develop upcoming leaders is time well spent and helps to ensure Army produces quality leaders for the future.
I was lucky enough to be mentored and coached by one of the finest soldiers within Army. He coached me on the high, basic standards he expected, and mentored me on how to be a leader; others are not as fortunate. I strongly encourage Army's senior soldiers to mentor our junior soldiers and guide them through postings, issues and rough spots.
Raising the Standard
Broadly, I think our soldiers are highly effective in their chosen field; however they have significant knowledge gaps in areas such as instructor skills, all-corps soldier skills and a broader understanding of the Army. This can all be alleviated by units objectively analysing these skills and identifying solutions to raise the standard. I have found the simplest and most effective solution is to program JNCO/SNCO development training into the unit’s battle rhythm.
Example Battle Rhythm
Having a battle rhythm that is endorsed by the Officer Commanding / Commanding Officer will ensure it is enforced. The biggest issue you will face is competing priorities. Even if half your unit is busy doing short notice tasks, it is essential that training continues; train whatever soldiers you have left.
I have used modified Subject One Corporal Army (S1CA) lessons to practise the delivery of weapons, drill and theory. I have found that the quality of instruction has been good; further, the soldiers seem to relish the opportunity to instruct. As part of this I have focused on those members about to attend their S1CA, this doubles as pre-course, and better prepares them for the course. It also highlights to them that mastering these skills (drill, weapons, and instruction) is important and that the unit is invested in their professional development. The unit SNCOs I have instruct on Corps-specific equipment. Again, I target those about to attend Corps subject courses.
During this training our soldiers are continually improved through the use of fault correction (coaching); this results in fault correction being normalised and an accepted practice.
As an Army, we need to be passionate about developing our soldiers in order to produce more rounded leaders for Army’s future. It is essential that this journey is enduring and consistent. Investing in Army’s future is time-consuming, difficult and often slow to show results; however, it is worth the return on investment. The supervision and coaching of soldiers is critically important if we desire improvement and for soldiers to be ‘brilliant at the basics’. Fault correction should be embraced as a valued method to effect change. Soldiers will actively search for someone to emulate, to choose a role model to aspire to become. It is imperative that leaders lead by example to demonstrate what professional mastery looks like and inspire soldiers to excel through action and words; to mentor.
I encourage all leaders to critically review the norm, to ask the question ‘why’, to pursue whether change was made for practicality or laziness. This is the only way to break the cycle of normalised deviance.
Challenge your SNCOs and WOs to take the challenge and strive for excellence through coaching, mentoring and supervision. Get after it.