We Must Do Better

I have long felt that the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is not an organization that promotes dissent or challenge. With deference to authority, a hierarchical structure, loyalty and obedience bred into us, it goes against our grain to challenge. And even when you do see questioning, or challenge, or a concern raised, it is typically broached in a very careful and cautious manner because of the perceived risk involved. I find it to be one of the most problematic or frustrating aspects of the organization, my perception certainly biased because of my outspoken nature. I see this hesitancy, the inclination to soften an objection, as an obstacle to change, to efficiency, to improvement. That is why when I read Daniel Coyle’s book, The Culture Code, I hadn’t even made it past his introduction and stumbled across a gem that resonated loud and clear. It validated my thoughts.

Coyle was describing an experiment intended to answer the question of why certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less. Kindergartners were out-performing business students by wide margins. He said we tend to focus on the individual skill as the factor that matters the most, but that ultimately, how people interact is what matters more. He highlighted that psychologists have a term for interactions that appear smooth, but with underlying behaviour that is riddled with inefficiencies, hesitation, and subtle competition – status management. The CAF suffers greatly from the affliction of status management.

Coyle presents this to highlight the power of a strong group culture, how it can be a force multiplier leveraging the outcome of the group beyond what the sum of its parts would suggest. But in the absence of a healthy culture, that potential remains untapped. But what is culture?

Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.

Daniel Coyle – The Culture Code

Coyle describes the work of Alex Pentland, of the MIT Human Dynamics Lab. Pentland’s work showed that the success in highly performing teams was not predicated on individual skill or attributes, but on more primitive behaviours of how people interacted with each other. Behaviours, not words, are what makes the difference, reinforcing Coyle’s definition of culture. Coyle further elaborates, “We think that group performance correlates to its members’ individual verbal intelligence and their ability to construct and communicate complex ideas. But that assumption is wrong. Words are noise. Group performance depends on behaviour that communicates one powerful overarching idea: We are safe and connected.”

Lieutenant-General Eyre released version 2 of his Command Philosophy for the Canadian Army in February this year. I had drafted an open letter in response (never published or sent it) because though I found his words to be aspirational, we weren’t living by it. He urged us to avoid the morale sapping cynicism, and I wanted to reply that I felt a healthy dose of cynicism is good for any institution. I watered down that draft and eventually published “Agility and Change.”

More recently, during the A/CDS’ address to command teams, LGen Eyre indicated that Canadian Defence Academy was already charged with a revamp of the CAF publication Duty With Honour. I provided some feedback to the chain of command that I thought even that was putting the cart before the horse. I wasn’t able to really articulate why, other than I had the sense in my gut that a rework of that publication was not going to be the solution, or have much of an impact at the moment. The Culture Code helped me better understand that nagging sense I had.

Duty With Honour should absolutely be tweaked at some point, however, the problem with Duty With Honour is that it just words, and words are not where our focus ought to be at the moment. Words alone will not change culture, that is driven by behaviours. Words are not worth the paper they are written on if our actions do not support them. 

Thank you to Daniel Coyle and his book, The Culture Code. It validated so much of what was swirling around in my head, but I lacked the education or background or credibility that would enable me to articulate it in any impactful way. I strongly encourage CAF members who are interested in changing our culture, who want to get the most out of everyone who wears the uniform, who want to be part of a team that is deserving of pride, to take the time to read his book. It is clear to me that if we want change, we need to make sure that people are not operating in an environment where they are never certain of their status, their value, or their security. We need to check our egos, be authentic, open and vulnerable. How we interact with people, our behaviours, matter more than the words we say and our individual technical and tactical knowledge.

We can be better. We must do better in order to be better.