Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Junior officer cage matches: blocking returns

Who's ready to talk Army officer evaluation policy? Because there was a big change announced on Friday that was brought to my attention on Twitter (James Joyner, Mike Lyons, Jimmy Sky, Crispin Burke, and RB Stalin). And it all stems from this media release from the Army's Human Resources Command. Firstly, I think it's funny that HRC would put out a "media release" on this topic - they might as well just fax a copy to the Army Times as I don't imagine anyone else will be covering this story (What? You're not interested NY Times? Why ever not?).

So here are the two major changes from this release:

1. Junior Officer check boxes. Back in the day all officers were "blocked" against each other (rated as above center of mass, center of mass upper half, center of mass lower half, below center of mass) and senior raters could only allocate so many officers to the top block as a percentage of the number of officers he senior rates of that rank (i.e., if a LTC battalion commander senior rates 15 lieutenants, only 2 could get top block). The limitation was a hedge against the "everyone's great" mentality of the zero-defect Army of the 1990s.

The Army did away with this type of blocking for lieutenants, captains, and the lower ranks of the warrant officer corps in 2004 or so because it didn't much matter anymore because of pressing personnel needs in higher ranks. With promotion rates to captain over 100% every year and rates to major in the high 90s, it didn't matter if you were a shitty platoon leader. You were needed as a captain (some guys still didn't get promoted, but it was mainly because they broke the law). There were other reasons involved - allowing LTs to take some risks and not be punished for it; LT evaluations are all masked from promotion boards once you've made captain so it didn't much matter anyway.

So what does this mean? It means the Army is getting serious again about effectively and honestly evaluating its junior officers. It means that captains are being truly evaluated again for their company command time - a massive indicator of competence for battalion command. It starts weeding out the weak early and is hopefully an indicator that promotions (and the commensurate increases in responsibility) won't be automatic anymore. It gives junior officers something to strive for: to get that top block to work towards earlier promotions and more responsibility. If you can't tell, I think this is change for the better.

2. 360 assessments. I had no idea the Army had started doing this, but the evaluation form will force the rater to indicate if the reviewed officer has had a 360 degree assessment done in the past 3 years. The assessments are apparently not part of the review, accessible only to the rater, and only for self-development of the reviewed officer. For now. There's been a lot of talk over the years to introduce actual rating by this method to smoke out "toxic leaders" and this is a step in that direction. I have conflicting views on idea of subordinates evaluating their leaders, but I can honestly say a terrible assessment from my subordinates when I was a cadet was a real eye-opener for me. I doubt I would have been a very successful officer at all without it. So this is probably a good change as well - or at least a good step in the right direction for holistic evaluations.

This all suggests that Army is about to get much more serious about evaluating its officers. It could be to get ready to cull the herd once austerity measures are put in place. It could be a response to the toxic leadership surveys. It could be some general just wanted to do it. It could be all of these. Whatever the reasoning, these are good changes and I hope the Army makes more of them.


  1. Second point first: I also didn't know there'd been any movement on 360 assessments, but that recommendation has been included in literally every single assessment of the officer personnel system that I've seen in the last five years. It's a step in the right direction if it starts happening, I think. There are obviously some possible negatives that need to be mitigated, but overall it strikes me as a worthwhile development.

    Now as for the first: I'll be honest and admit that I had no idea this wasn't already a part of the way the Army evaluated officers. I hope my brother will chime in on this because he obviously knows more about it, but the Navy has been rating dudes this way for as long as I'm aware: every FITREP, you get ranked as #X out of the total number of other O-2s/O-3s/whatever in your command, along with "Early Promote," "Must Promote," "Promotable," "Progressing," or "Significant Problems." For whatever it's worth (and I've never worked for a command at sea, obviously, just a shore command), I've never seen anything below "Promote" (even though EPs and MPs can only make up a maximum of 50% of the rated officers).

    The culture of insanely inflated FITREPs still reigns, and everyone needs to learn which codewords mean legitimately excellent versus just "average" (because an average officer might still be described as "excellent"). It's stupid, but it is what it is.

  2. Everyone used to be blocked until 2004ish (my last blocked OER), but then the Army stopped doing it for LTs, CPTs, WOs, CW2s. Majors and above were still blocked.

    There was/is still a "Best Qualified" versus "Fully Qualified" for promotion potential (also a Do Not Promote). So yeah, a little odd they got rid of it, but most senior raters just put the numbers in the write-up ("among my 2 best captains" etc).

  3. Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure I'd heard of the practice of raters slipping the ranking into the narrative section, so I'm not sure why I didn't connect the dots that there was no other space to do that.

    Anyway, I'm with you: while I'm not sure there are too many lieutenants thinking "meh, who cares if I do a shitty job, EVERYBODY makes O-3 around here," restoring rigor to the evaluation process ought to go some way to reminding young officers that the responsibility for soldiers' lives (even if they don't call it platoon command in the Army) is a trust and obligation that shouldn't be taken for granted just because we're short of company-grade officers.

  4. It's possible to keep 360 assessments "positive". I implemented a system when I was commanding that I distributed to all NCOs and officers where by we listed 6 traits we expected of all leaders in our battery to possess. To grade someone, you circled their 3 most positive ones. The results went only to the individual. In the end, you had a collection of reports that showed you what you were good at. If one of the traits wasn't circled often, then you could take from that you needed to work on that criteria. Not perfect, but the message was delivered.