Can we (please) fix the Air Force evaluation system?

I’ve been in the Air Force for 18 years.  I’ve seen, reviewed, edited, and written myriad performance reports for both enlisted members and officers.  During those 18 years, I’ve discussed the Air Force evaluation system with young Airmen, old colonels, smart sergeants, confused captains, angry majors, and exhausted commanders.

I’ve taken an informal poll and I can say with confidence:  90% of the Air Force thinks our evaluation system is terrible.  They don’t think it is mediocre or that it has some short-comings.  They think the evaluation system is absolutely terrible.  The wrong people get praised with glowing reports and great people get over looked by the system. 

The Purpose of Annual Evaluations

Performance evaluations play an important role in any large organization.  For the Air Force, these reports are supposed to provide a standardized record of an individual’s performance.  Then that record is supposed to be used to enlighten the personnel bureaucracy within the Air Force.  It is the accurate performance report that will drive what individuals are selected for key jobs and positions, educational opportunities, critical leadership positions, and ultimately (most importantly) performance reports will play a key role in promotions for enlisted and commissioned Airmen.

Yes, the Air Force evaluation system is very important.  How is it possible that the overwhelming majority (yes, I’m sticking with the 90% number) of Airmen think the evaluation system is broken and inaccurate?  More importantly, why does Air Force leadership ignore this fact?  Does a first rate organization settle for a 5th rate evaluation program that is devoid of accuracy?

The underlying truth is this:  because the evaluation system is so crucial, it must be grounded in truth, fairness, and accuracy – and currently it falls far short of these ideals.

The Problems with Air Force Evaluations

1. Limited Perspective:    The current evaluation system has one point of view.  The only person evaluating an individual is the immediate supervisor or rater.  You get only one person’s opinion of an individual’s performance.   Yes, it is true that all evaluations have a block for senior rater’s to make comments about an individual; but let’s be honest – senior raters never write a word of that.  It is all written by the immediate supervisor.  

So ultimately you get the opinion of a single individual about the performance of a single individual. 

Practically speaking what does this mean?   It means the individual being rated only has to please one person:  his immediate boss.  The individual can be despised by his subordinates and disdained by his co-workers, but if he has pleased his immediate supervisor, he stands to get a great performance appraisal from his boss.  Inversely, if an individual is loved and respected by subordinates, and universally praised by peers it doesn’t guarantee him a great report.  If that second individual is loved by everyone except his immediate boss, guess what happens?  He gets a bad report.  This is nonsensical.

And what kind of people spend all their time pleasing their boss to the detriment of all other relationships?  Not leaders.  Not innovators.  Not team builders.  The type that spend all their time pleasing their bosses are usually annoying sycophants.

2. An Obsession with Form over Substance:   The Air Force evaluation system is one of the most bureaucratic processes you would ever want to encounter.  Like all bloated bureaucratic processes, there is always a flimsy excuse for the byzantine manner in which processes are executed.  In this case the excuse used is:  these reports are so important we need to have multiple cumbersome reviews, ridiculously prescriptive writing guidance, and grammatical excess that would make a 9th grade-grammar-Nazi-English-teacher blush.

Practically speaking, the review process for evaluations takes so long that authors are writing draft reports two months before the end of the evaluation period.  In other words, a 12-month report is written at the 10 month point and clever supervisors are left predicting what their subordinate will accomplish in the last 2 months of the report. 

Is this indicative of performance reports being accurate or important?  I don’t think so.  It is indicative that the review process is ridiculous.  In every Air Force organization I’ve worked in there are so many people reviewing performance reports for “quality” that you end up with a series of edits, re-edits, rewrites, suggestions from would be “grammar experts” up the chain of command.   Literally, some senior leader prefers “azure” over “blue” and it is sent back for re-write.  Someone likes the word squadron capitalized and another doesn’t – so we need a re-write! 

Why this obsession with form?  Does anyone really think that a promotion board reviewing someone’s record is going to say “Wow!  This guy has a fantastic record.  I sure would like to promote him but his supervisor capitalized the word ‘Squadron’ in his performance report.  Even worse, his boss used the word tremendous when he should have written fantastic.  Oh well, I guess this guy shouldn’t be promoted.”

Ludicrous?  Not at all.  The Air Force spends hour upon hour evaluating adjectives and adverbs in performance reports.  We spend vast amounts of energy on abbreviations.  We struggle over whether we should use a semicolon or a dash. 

Ultimately all this energy wasted by the foolish bureaucracy creates a system that spends more time on form than substance.  Raters are struggling with rules, regulations, and complying with myriad “writing guides” rather than doing their level best to accurately reflect the performance of their subordinate.

Enlisted Evaluations – the participation trophy:   The enlisted evaluation system has a wonderful two-sided form for supervisors to use to evaluate Airmen.  The critical part of the form is the numeric rating.  An enlisted member can be rated from 1 to 5 on their performance.  If someone is rated an overall “5” by their supervisor, that individual is absolutely superior and should be promoted; “4” is very good; “3” is average; “2” needs work; “1” probably has major issues.   Great.  Makes sense.

There is just one problem – 98.62% of enlisted evaluations have an overall rating of “5.”  (Yes, I made up that statistic; it is likely a higher percentage than I estimate).

How is that possible?  How can almost every airman earn the highest recommendation for promotion?  This is a military force, not a youth soccer league.  We shouldn’t be giving out participation trophies to all Airmen.  Thanks for showing up Johnny, here’s your trophy…er, “5” performance report.

The enlisted performance reports have no credibility.  This should bother every member of the Air Force.  We have repeatedly said performance reports are important, but we have created a monstrosity of an evaluation system.  All the current system guarantees is that you cannot rely on it to differentiate between great, very good, good, average, and substandard Airmen.  This is incredibly discouraging for our best performers, who after doing fantastic work get the same performance trophy as the guy who skips practice and misses games.

4. Unwritten Rules:  Despite all of the withering, debilitating bureaucratic guidance regarding Air Force performance reports, there is one more glaring short-coming in the system.  The Air Force performance report system uses secret codes, implied remarks, and double-meanings in the narrative of the reports in order to send secret messages to the personnel system.

No, I am not a Dan Brown-styled conspiracy-nut.  I am not suggesting that albino monks at the Air Force Personnel System are harboring secrets in performance reports.

But it is well known throughout the Air Force that there are certain unwritten rules on comments in performance reports.  For example, when I was a lieutenant I would see in performance reports words like “Challenge this officer” or “Rock-solid officer.”   At one time these were just throwing away words in a report.  Now they have secret meanings to boards.  Challenge actually means this guy isn’t ready for prime time; rock solid means not very good (sorry to disappoint you – don’t worry it’s on one of my reports too).   If you don’t say “promote” you are sending a secret message.  If you don’t recommend someone for school – the albino monks are taking notice.

Is this really what we want for our very important performance appraisal system?  Secret messages that aren’t standardized, change from year to year and from person to person?  I don’t think so.

A Better Way

Here is how we fix the Air Force Evaluation System:

1.  360 degree evaluations:  We have to get away from single-view evaluations – especially for leaders (Officers and NCOs).  Every leader in the United States Air Force should be evaluated by their boss, their peers, and their subordinates.

This is not as radical as it sounds.  Yes, the Air Force is a hierarchy.  Yes, we have a chain of command.  However, the measure of effective leadership is how the leader interacts with peers and subordinates.  A leader is actually leading subordinates (aka people).  That is the #1 group I want to hear from when evaluating a leader’s performance.   The Captain who is despised by peers and subordinates, but loved by the Squadron Commander – that is a lousy Captain.  The Colonel who is despised by the Lt. Colonels, who work for her, is more than likely failing even if she impresses the General in staff meetings.

Every leader must get evaluated from those above, equal to, and below him in the chain of command. 

This will likely frighten some “leaders”.  To that I say, fantastic!  We already have too many leaders focused solely up the chain of command to the detriment of morale and mission accomplishment.  Will this give too much power to peers and subordinates?  No.  As it stands we are giving too much power to one person’s opinion on performance.  Additionally, I trust people.  I don’t fear the comments of my peers and subordinates being included in my record.  I certainly hope that other leaders don’t fear their peers and subordinates.

2. Stop the nonsense on grammar and form:   Let’s go to a purely narrative form.  The current bullet-comment format has become a laughing stock.  Additionally, we have to agree as a service that we don’t care whether “squadron” is capitalized or not.  We have to stop blathering about action verbs, quality adverbs and adjectives, and the best way to abbreviate words.  The performance report is a tool to communicate how someone did in their job.  It doesn’t have to take on the cumbersome bureaucratic regulatory structure of Wheat Production in the former Soviet Union.

Let’s just simply state what a person did, why it was significant, and what kind of officer, NCO, or Airman we are dealing with.  We will probably have to keep the numeric scoring for enlisted personnel and stratifications for officers – but that does not mean we have to keep the goofy bullet format comments where we labor over removing individual letters to make the right adjective fit on the form.

Additionally, let’s agree that all the endless grammar reviews and quality reviews are a waste of resources time and effort.  The Air Force has its leaders spending hours every week trying to decide if a double-dash is appropriate or a semicolon would be better.  We have highly paid leaders agonizing over whether some project was completed “quickly,” “rapidly” or “efficiently.”  It’s like something out of the movie Office Space.

Unless your name is Colonel Funk or General Wagnalls stop with the endless grammatical reviews!  You do not impress anyone and every minute you spend on grammar is a minute you aren’t leading – the real job of Generals and Colonels (same goes for you Chief Master Sergeants).  Are you seriously telling me that the service founded by Billy Mitchell has strong opinions on whether fantastic is a better adjective than tremendous?

3.  It’s time for trophies to go to the most deserving:  There is only one way to fix the enlisted performance report problem.  If everyone is getting rated a “5”, you have to create a limit on the number of “5’s” given.  I propose that only the top 20% of enlisted personnel should get rated as a “5.”

I know there will be many who say we shouldn’t create a quota.  All that is needed is honest raters who are willing to not give a “5” to someone who deserves a “4.”  I used to believe this.  I no longer do. 

When every soccer team is giving participation trophies to all players, the coach who stands on principle and only gives trophies to his best players is not going to coach very long.

The system is broken.  Let’s introduce a 20% quota for “5” ratings and also make it clear that a “4” rating is very good.  The “4” will probably need to be limited to 30%.  That would leave the bottom 50% of the enlisted force in the average or below average categories.  In my experience, that is really how the enlisted force breaks out anyhow.

Let’s admit and move on.  It doesn’t mean that average performers aren’t important.  Look at a football team and tell me that role players aren’t important to team success.  We can still love the average performers – let’s just stop lying to them.

4.  No more codes:  Currently, secretive albino monks are not running (yet) our promotion boards and assignment teams.  We have actual professional Airmen running that process.  It is time to do away with secret code words that none of us can keep up with.  If I think a young officer would do great in a challenging job next, for goodness sakes let me say “challenge him with a tough job.”  I actually mean that.

If something absolutely has to be on a performance report, create a block for that measurement with clear guidance for leaders.

Stop making us figure out personnel nuance from year to year.  “You can’t mention college degrees”; “don’t forget to say promote – even if the person isn’t eligible for promotion”; “No one believes you when you say best captain I’ve ever worked with.”

Enough!  Why don’t we just have the evaluator write a paragraph or two about the rated individual?  Combine that with a numeric rating (for enlisted) or stratification (for officers) and you are all done.

When everyone agrees and no one acts, we have a problem

The Air Force is a great place to work.  I love the people, the mission, and the excellence associated with the Air Force.

But I hate the evaluation system.  I am not alone.  Just talk with members of the Air Force and you will get overwhelming evidence that the evaluation system is broken.

If we have a massive majority that knows this, isn’t it time to act?  Of course it is – and it should be bold innovative action.  It should be a revolutionary change.

That is the Air Force way. 

-cj cheetham

*If you are curious about Colonel Funk and General Wagnalls, you can read about them here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funk_%26_Wagnalls

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4 thoughts on “Can we (please) fix the Air Force evaluation system?

  1. What do you think about the Navy’s evaluation system, wherein the ratee is given a numeric rating (on a 5 point scale) on several traits, and the ratings are averaged? What I like about the system is that a given rater’s previous evals are all included in his or her average, so that it weights the score a ratee receives. If a given rater plays Santa Claus and regularly hands out inflated ratings, then a high rating from him or her won’t mean much. But if another rater is somewhat stingy with ratings, then even an “average” rating from him or her would indicate a high level of performance in a given ratee. It seems to me that this does a good job of controlling for grade inflation, and could be appropriately incorporated into the Air Force EPR (and possibly OPR) system.

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  2. I like teh Navy system – not only for the reasons you mention but because they use free text and don’t waste a lot of time fitting rigid bullet formats. They just write some sentences.

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  3. Sir,
    A guy in my ACSC flight told us about your blog and I am enjoying catching up on your leadership posts. These are the very issues that we talk most about at ACSC…not in any of the lectures or seminars, mind you, but at lunch and in our flight room.

    I agree wholeheartedly that the evaluation system is ridiculous and I thought your recommendations were excellent-or tremendous-or outstanding…or whatever.

    I must confess that I think the “rating from below” idea would be much harder to implement than it would appear, though. I do not fear feedback from my subordinates, at all. In fact, I welcome and invite it. I just believe that it would end up being a popularity contest in too many shops with the master sergeant or major who overlooks bad behavior being the one who, all too often, would be declared the “best” leader. I know that there are exceptions and we could probably come up with a system that would reflect the views of the led. I just think it would take some time and trial to work out.

    Again, thanks for posting your thoughts. I am learning a lot from them.

    Daniel Waterman

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