In a March 14 Senate hearing on the Marine Corps nude photo-sharing scandal, Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said, “This issue of denigration of women, objectification of women, misogyny – however you want to articulate it…we are going to have to change how we see ourselves and how we treat each other…We’ve got to change. And that’s on me.”
We think the Commandant has set the stage for real progress in the Marine Corps, but we caution leaders to keep three principles top-of-mind through this process.
Principle 1: Behavior-based training alone will not achieve the Commandant’s objectives.
Based on our experience in and work throughout the U.S. military, it’s likely the Marines will try to change how they treat one another by requiring behavior-based training. We’d expect to see an increase in mandatory diversity training, equal opportunity training, and so on.
Unfortunately, this approach does not address the underlying driver of behavior: mindset. To shift perspectives in a lasting and meaningful way, we must change mindset first – otherwise people will slide back to old behaviors as soon as leadership’s attention turns elsewhere. The mandatory behavioral approach also invites resistance from those who feel forced to attend.
Principle 2: Policies and actions should reflect the reality that people are people.
In the Senate hearing, the Commandant said the Marines need to get to a place where everyone knows, “all Marines are Marines.” We see a direct parallel to one of Arbinger’s key tenets: seeing people as people. When we see each other as fellow human beings, we have neither need nor desire to treat others worse than ourselves. Applied in the Marine Corps, this understanding means each Marine counts the same to us. A female Marine is no less of a Marine than any other, for example.
Principle 3: I am part of the problem.
In Arbinger’s newest book, The Outward Mindset, we share the story of a leader who spent a day with his executive team working on the company’s issues from the following perspective: As far as I am concerned, the problem is me. At the end of the day this CEO wanted to make sure his people understood the importance and potential of this concept. “Remember,” he boomed, “as far as you are concerned, the problem is you!”…To which all the members of his team responded by despondently shaking their heads at the boss’s blindness!
Military and other leaders who want to implement the changes that Gen. Neller spoke of must begin with the realization – even the conviction – that they themselves are part of the problem. Only this kind of self-reflective honesty will give both permission and power to others to consider how they themselves also might be part of the problem.
We speak of this with experience. As co-Directors of Arbinger’s Government Practice, we both have spent careers in the military. And both of us have been part of the problem. When one of us – Amy – was deployed, there were screen savers of extremely explicit photos in the Operations Center. As the only female on the team, this created a struggle. Amy says:
This kind of behavior – putting up those photos – bothered me, but I was worried about how I’d be seen if I made an issue about it. My focus was on myself, not on the impact those images had on the larger group culture. In the end, I just reinforced that this kind of behavior was okay. I was part of the problem.
The solution begins with ME
In the Senate hearing, the Commandant took ownership for the culture of the Marine Corps and responsibility for the changes that must occur. He set an excellent leadership example by taking personal responsibility for this issue – and the real power of the example lies in its implicit invitation for other leaders to say, “Yes, I’m responsible too.” This element of role modeling, cascaded down through the hierarchy, is critical to the success of any culture change effort.
The combination of changing mindset and role modeling will help bring about the culture change the Commandant wants. With these two elements deeply embedded in the organization, when someone sees a fellow Marine being exploited, they will say something. They won’t tacitly allow it to go on by turning their head.
As this change in mindset takes root, leadership will discover two truths that will drastically simplify their lives: First, the people in their commands will begin to make many of the necessary behavior changes without having to be trained or prodded to do so. Second, where additional behavior training remains necessary, people will no longer resist it. Trainings that in the past have been largely ineffectual will begin to make an impact.
Why? Because the underlying mindsets of the people will have positioned them to do what we all need to do better: respect and honor each other as people.