Fast Food, USAF, Teams, and Motivation, Part 3

Downward trajectory
This site contains my opinions and ideas only, not the opinions or ideas of any organization I work for. It’s my idea playground, and I’m inviting you in. Welcome!
Just letting you know right now–the only thing space-related in this series of posts is the organization I currently work for. The series is mainly about leadership, motivation, and what worked for me, as well as why. If that’s not your gig, I get it. There will be more space topics later, I promise.

How does an organization’s leaders lose the trust, confidence, and demotivate motivated individuals in one fell swoop? Normally, that sort of thing would take time and a series of circumstances, but for me, one big, rotten deal happened to a friend of mine–in the name of the “morale and well-being of the crew force.”

On the Concept of “Morale and Well-being”

Now you’re probably thinking things weren’t that bad while I was in the USAF, and that I’m just grumpy. I will admit, for me, things were never that bad.

For example, there tends to be an emphasis on being a “team-player,” which I normally like. And I enjoyed working with very motivated individuals. But when being a team-player means accepting mediocrity, dubious values, and erosion of one’s ethics, well, that can make things very hard for those not willing to play along. Furthermore, being part of a team also leads to some strange decisions, with people in leadership positions choosing the less stressful (for them, anyway) way to deal with leadership challenges, but not necessarily the “right” way.

One particular incident of negative team-player dynamics tremendously affected how I viewed USAF leadership. It involved a good friend of mine–now an acquaintance. Before and at the time of the incident, we hung around a bit.

Without getting into too much detail (the whole story would make for an interesting book), my friend was ultimately punished for sticking to his beliefs. He had gone about the correct way to make sure his beliefs did not conflict with mission requirements, receiving the correct permissions and paperwork (called an accommodation), then conducted his mission very well. He did this for about two years without incident and was very successful. But then things changed–leaders in this instance, as they do in the Air Force. Ultimately the change was not good for him, as new leadership threatened him to abandon his beliefs or accept punishment.

The amount of negativity coming to bear on him, from all levels of leadership, and from peers in the squadrons, was dismaying. Some examples: How dare he stick to his beliefs. He’s making that up–I am of the same religion and I don’t do that! He feels he is better than the rest of us, and so the rules must be different for him! You know people from this religion–they believe one thing then another thing (that came from a group commander). Etc.

And it wasn’t just comments.

My friend had showed me an initial performance review his crew commander had written up for him. It was glowing. The accepted performance review, re-written by someone else, ultimately had words in it to the effect that my friend’s stance had a negative impact on “the morale and well-being” of the crew force. This, in spite of him following the rules. This, without any subordination of any kind. My friend was a good person. He wanted to keep conducting the mission, but without conflicting with his religious stance. He had done so for two years. The USAF could have kept him on, kept him motivated, maybe directed him a little differently, and both might have been richer for it. But the “leaders” chose not to.

Instead, because my friend dared not to back down, he was punished. And while the published driver for the bad review and subsequent sniping of my friend’s character had to do with the morale and well-being of the crew force, my morale, my well-being (and that of a few others), were negatively impacted because of how our managers had handled this. I can’t imagine what it was even like for him and his family. Most of the USAF mob smelled blood, and wanted more.

My friend eventually left the USAF and he’s successfully conducting business in his other life. The USAF is poorer for it.

What was learned through my friend’s pain? First, fighting for religious beliefs and freedom is great, unless it goes against the commander’s beliefs, and the beliefs of the group. Second, even when someone does everything right, they will still be punished if the people doing the punishing are hell-bent on doing so. Examples of this punishment will motivate others to avoid standing up for their beliefs, after all. Third, compliance is more desirable than stubbornness and intelligence. Like Hydra, compliance will be rewarded–and I saw that, too. The list goes on. I learned a lot about leadership during those months, mainly about what not to do. And, like finding an error while proofreading a text, a person then looks harder for other errors.

Again, my experience is not that of others. There are bright stars in the USAF, probably, but not in gang that led our group. But, whether I knew it or not, that time likely subconsciously cemented my decision to leave the service when the right time presented itself.

And that’s how an organization can demotivate highly motivated people, very, very, quickly.

Morale and well-being indeed…

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