(John Harman / Staff)
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The Pentagon’s top brass has agreed to adopt widespread use of “360-degree” reviews for officers across all the military services in the most far-reaching effort yet to root out “toxic leaders” before they reach senior ranks.
Exactly how each service will institutionalize the controversial evaluation tool remains to be seen. Each is studying the issue and will draft its own plan to draw evaluations not only from superiors in the chain of command but also from peers and subordinates. The aim: to provide a complete picture of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses as seen from every angle in the chain of command.
Whether the reviews will be used to rate all 217,000 officers in the force or just the 920 or so general and flag officers, or something in between, will be decided by the individual service chiefs, who may take very different approaches.
For now, the Air Force has little to say about the issue beyond confirming that planning is underway. “The Air Force is looking at how we can integrate the 360 evaluation into the process we currently use to assess senior leader performance,” said Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer.
In contrast, the Navy has been using 360s for about a decade for certain officers, although today they are used informally for self-development, not as part of official personnel files.
Whether that will continue to be the case into the future, or whether 360s might be applied more broadly and directly within the promotion process, is another uncertainty.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, recommended the services implement their own 360-degree evaluation processes in a March report to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who promptly approved the recommendation.
Dempsey has put the new policy on the fast track, calling for the services to produce “implementation plans” within six months.
“The chairman does not want this to sit still,” said Marine Lt. Gen. George Flynn, director of Joint Force Development on the Joint Staff, who is helping coordinate the services’ plans for putting 360 evaluations into practice.
That will be a challenge. There is clear disagreement about how far and how fast to adopt the concept of allowing subordinates to rate their bosses. But at its core, the push is a rare top-down effort to reform an aspect of military life that is almost sacrosanct — the power of each service to develop its own system to train, evaluate and promote its officer corps.
“The big goal here is better leader development,” Flynn said in an interview in which he sketched out a possible policy in which many, or even all, officers could be subject to the new reviews. He said the results could be shared with an officer’s senior rater and therefore influence formal evaluations.
Building better leaders
“Your senior raters ... are still going to rate your performance,” he said. “But this 360-degree assessment is going to be a tool that they can use to help in your evaluation as well as in your development. Many times the senior has a picture that your unit is doing great things; your unit does everything you ask. They don’t realize that behind the scenes you are doing everything you can to demoralize that unit.”
It’s too early to say how each service might link the reviews with its formal evaluation process. “I’m not sure it’s going to exist in a personnel file,” he said, but “as part of your evaluation, an assessment will be done.”
That’s exactly what worries some officers. But Flynn said he hopes officers don’t focus on the punitive potential of the new reviews, but rather what it could do for them.
“It’s about leader development, it’s not about leader evaluation,” he said. “It’s not ‘How do you expose toxic leaders?’ It’s about, ‘How do you never even get to be the toxic leader?’ ”
Until now, experiments with 360-degree assessments, or “multirater” reviews, have been confined to a leadership development exercise, with results shared only with the officer under review for his own self-assessment and not shown to any senior officer or linked to the traditional evaluation and command screening process.
“One of the problems is when they use 360 reviews for development, its almost like it’s top secret — they don’t sit down and talk to anyone about it,” said Tracy Maylett, a management consultant who has worked with several Army commands to implement small-scale 360-degree reviews.
Cultural resistance likely
Expanding the use of these reviews likely will face significant cultural resistance. “The senior people who have thrived under the current system will be suspicious ... that this will change the leadership style, perhaps in a negative way, by encouraging officers to pander to their peers and subordinates,” said Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Maylett said showing results only to the officer being evaluated undermines the effectiveness of the approach — but giving them too much weight can backfire if reviewers become aware of the potential consequences of negative comments and ratings.
“The results are no longer valid because either everyone is getting high marks or getting slammed.”
Given all the unanswered questions, the changes may take time to evolve. And each service is likely to move forward at its own pace.
Navy. The Navy has experimented with 360s for about a decade, but only as informal counseling and training tools. Prospective commanders and XOs who have already been screened for command select the peers and subordinates to rate them, and the subsequent results are used solely for self-development and are not made a part of the officer’s personnel record. Admirals and surface warfare ensigns sit through similar reviews.
Over the past year, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert has discussed expanding the evaluations. Surface warfare lieutenants will receive such evaluations during their department head tours as part of the latest trial to assess whether to expand the reviews to midcareer officers.
The Navy ran a widespread trial onboard 15 ships and at three shore commands in 2003, two years after a record-setting number of skipper reliefs. Managers from work center supervisors up to commanding officers received 360-degree reviews.
The concept of formal reviews was shelved after it met resistance from Navy Personnel Command, former officials said, with critics arguing that 360s were too time-consuming and that subordinates shouldn’t have a say in evaluating their bosses. As a result, the Navy has since largely limited these reviews to training commands and informal counseling.
Army. So far, the Army has been the most aggressive of the services in using 360-degree evaluations — an effort that Dempsey strongly backed during his brief tenure as Army chief of staff in 2011.
The Army already uses 360-degree evaluations for its generals. Dempsey’s successor, Gen. Ray Odierno, recently launched a pilot program that will run through this summer targeting battalion and brigade commanders — lieutenant colonels and colonels — to receive 360s that will be shared with their chain of command as an accountability tool.
This comes on top of the Army’s existing 360 Multi-Source Assessment and Feedback progam, which is now required for all officers at least once every three years. The MSAF allows an officer to select the subordinates and peers who provide feedback, with the responses aggregated so the officer can’t pinpoint who said what. The officer is the only person who receives the report, which is not put in their official personnel files.
■Marine Corps. To date, the Marines have not widely used 360-degree reviews. As the service develops its plan, Gen. James Amos, the Corps’ commandant, is intent on using them only for general officers, with the results possibly being used by the commandant and other senior generals when assigning people to high-level positions.
Amos also plans to expand the use of command climate surveys for other officers, and the results will be shared with the commanding officer as well as the CO’s seniors.
Air Force. The Air Force has not widely used 360-degree reviews, but planning is now underway to start, officials say.
“In addition to giving our senior leaders top-down feedback, the 360 look will give them better awareness of how their peers and subordinates view their ability to accomplish the mission,” said Spencer, the service’s vice chief.
It’s too early to say whether, or how, the Air Force might use 360s as part of the formal evaluation process, an official said.
Formal or informal?
Dempsey advocated integrating 360s into the command screening process when he was Army chief of staff, and Marine Brig. Gen. William Mullen, who heads the Corps’ Education Command and Marine Corps University, said integrating subordinates’ views into the official record would help weed out bad leaders before they rise up the ranks.
“You can always fool people above you,” Mullen said last fall. “But you can never fool the people below you. They know.”
But Maylett advised the military to move cautiously. “It can create damage in the organization if it’s not done correctly,” he said, adding that when formal appraisals become a factor, the situation can turn into “a real mess.”
He envisions a possible hybrid solution in which raw 360 results could be translated into specific goals and only those goals would be included in formal evaluations.
Mark Edwards, a Naval Academy graduate and former management consultant who authored the book “360-degree Feedback,” argues that 360s can be more effective than the military’s current two-dimensional review process. And once an organization implements a 360 process, it’s hard to keep them from seeping into formal assessments, he said.
Making full use of the reviews makes practical sense, he said. “It’s too expensive and takes too much time to do it purely for developmental reasons.”
Simply sharing it with bosses will have an effect, he added. “Once you see that information, ... how the heck are you going to forget it?”
There is also common-sense logic in favor of letting troops rate their bosses, said retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, former head of the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington.
“The good officers … who lead by example rather than through fear, I can’t imagine them not wanting their subordinates to go on the record,” Nagl said. “For those who oppose this, I would ask them: ‘What is it that you don’t want your subordinates saying about you? Which behaviors would your subordinates downgrade you for?’ ”■
Staff writers Gina Harkins, Sam Fellman, Michelle Tan, Jeff Schogol and Andrew deGrandpre contributed to this story.