PERSPECTIVE: I am the Majority

By Ram Reddy

I am an Air Force officer, a man of Indian descent, a pilot, and a member of the majority in a typical Air Force flying squadron. Throughout my career, there were only a handful of women in my units. Gaining an understanding of what it feels like to be a woman in a male-dominated career field was not easy and I never took the time to ask a female colleague about her experiences. Worse, I never recall a time when I sought out a female service member’s perspective before making a decision that could affect her differently than her male counterparts. 

I have read in leadership and management articles that women may not feel comfortable speaking up during a meeting when they have something to contribute. I have also heard women may feel intimidated stepping into a meeting full of men. Even though I could not relate, I believed these feelings and perspectives were real and I worried we could be missing valuable insights if our female Airmen were not speaking up. 

I have also heard men say, “Why do they feel uncomfortable? Just say what you need to say.” Or, “Women have been in the service for a while. It’s probably not an issue anymore.” While I never personally understood the circumstances surrounding how or why women might feel this way, I believed their opinions were valuable.  In an effort to hear their thoughts, I made a conscious effort to call on female Airmen in meetings or group conversations if I noticed they were not participating. To this day, I still do not know if I was doing the right thing. Several questions come to mind: Is this still an issue? Did I inadvertently put her on the spot? Am I helping or hurting when I call on her? Am I overthinking it?

As women have advanced in the workforce, these questions have become more and more prevalent and scientists have invested extensive time and effort into determining the root cause of the disparities in treatment between men and women.  A Yale University study found male executives who spoke often in meetings received 10% higher ratings on competence, whereas female executives who also spoke often received 14% lower competency ratings. (1) “Also, the more the men spoke up, the more helpful their managers believed them to be. But when women spoke up more, there was no increase in their perceived helpfulness.” (1) Another study tasked a group of men and women to make strategic decisions about a bookstore’s operations, while randomly informing one person with data about a better approach. When the member with that inside knowledge was female, her suggestions were discounted and viewed as disloyal. (1) With the deck stacked against them, either intentionally or unintentionally, it is becoming apparent why women are hesitant to speak up more. 

A New Perspective

Shortly after starting my current assignment, a close female friend asked if I wanted to join the Department of the Air Force Women’s Initiatives Team (WIT). The WIT helps identify and remove barriers in Air Force and DOD policy that restrict women’s ability to fulfill the Air Force’s mission. I eagerly agreed to join without knowing what I would do or what I would learn. I was amazed by the new perspective I gained very quickly.

I walked into the first meeting with my friend and one other female Airman and we were the only people in the meeting room. I sat in a chair along the edge of the room as they set up for the meeting. More people filled the room: civilians, enlisted, officers…all female. A strange feeling came over me and I thought to myself, “Is this the odd feeling that women talk about?” I looked around and realized there was only one other male Airman in the room and, suddenly, we were the minority.

An hour later, as the meeting ended, the organizer asked, “Does anyone have anything to add or have any questions?” I wrote down a few questions and comments during the meeting, yet I thought to myself, “Hell no I don’t.” I didn’t think that I should, or could, say something. I surely did not have the experience of a woman to add value to the discussion. I also remember thinking, “How would the group react to a man saying something?”

Shortly thereafter, the meeting concluded with “Good meeting ladies!” About a split second after that, a little voice inside me said, “I’m here too and I’m a guy.” (Full Disclosure: The statement was quickly corrected to “ladies and gentlemen”) Although I did not take the initial statement personally and while I truly believe it was just a misspeak, for a second I wondered if I blended into the background and no one noticed that a man was in the room. It was then that I realized that I have never been more aware of my gender in a situation before. 

Experts have suggested many techniques women can use to speak up and assert themselves in the workplace, but leaders must also create a culture that ensures their voices are heard. In another study, 68% of women stated they seldom receive feedback and a male executive admitted, “We talk about them, but not to them.” (2) Furthermore, a leader must elicit feedback to ensure they are providing the space needed to invite female participation. The same study found leaders need to actively ask women to participate. Thirty-eight percent of women said, “Ask us direct questions” or “Bring us into the discussion.” (2) One female executive discussed her experience with a male colleague who had been in a series of meetings with her and observed her discomfort in speaking up. One day he asked for her perspective in a meeting and explicitly stated not to worry about how it might be received by all the men around the table. As a result, a safe environment was created for her to speak and she has been speaking up ever since. (2) Based on these studies, leaders should conduct feedback directly with female Airman to better understand their challenges with speaking up in meetings and proactively invite women into the conversation.

Furthermore, if she is interrupted, ask her to finish her thought and make it clear that everyone gets a chance to voice their feedback and opinion. (3) Equal speaking time in a group would suggest that each person in a group of five has 20% of the time to speak. However, a Brigham Young University study found a group required not just a female majority, but a supermajority (4 women out of 5) in order for women to retain equality in talking time. The study also found in groups with only one female, women garnered many interruptions, of which 70% were negative and not in support of her comments. (3) How a leader reacts to situations and supports their subordinates reinforces the culture of the organization and allows everyone to contribute to better the unit.

My “ah ha” moment came at the end of that first WIT meeting. Everything came together. Being in that room, I realized what I was missing all these years. Being in that room let me experience a tiny fraction of what our female Airmen experience daily in our male dominated service. It made me understand, with experiential evidence, the truth behind these thoughts and feelings and gave me a new perspective. My behavior has changed significantly since that first meeting due to my interactions with the WIT and the feedback I received. Members of the WIT actively sought out my perspective during discussions and I was encouraged to speak up. If I missed the mark, I was provided feedback for improvement and professionally challenged to broaden my problem solving skills. These interactions reaffirmed that my opinion was valued and motivated me to participate more. I now manage the WIT Air Force Portal webpage and assist in Lines of Effort to help remove barriers for our service women.

I acknowledge all women may not share these experiences. There may be female Airmen who are not afraid to speak up regardless of the perceived consequences or others who work in an environment that encourages them to speak up without hesitation. However, evidence shows that at least some women continue to hold back or are held back and we should work to eliminate such cultures and barriers from manifesting or persisting in our units. 

Gaining Perspective

A former Commander once told me to always fight for perspective. His intent was for me to understand the viewpoint of our passengers in order to better support them during the deployment. I wrote those words down in my notebook as a reminder to try to see things from different angles. However, at the time, I did not realize those words would ring true for many different situations. There are many majorities and minorities and, therefore, many perspectives. They can come in the form of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. They can also be more subtle, such as operations vs. support, service vs. service in the joint environment, single vs. married, or old heads vs. new hires. These are just a few, but each group has different experiences and different perspectives.

This experience made me realize that I should take the time to learn from people different than myself and strive to see situations from different perspectives. I believe making this conscious effort will help me understand our Airmen better and help me understand the barriers they may face, so I can lead better. Doing so will also help me build teams comprised of diverse thought so we can develop creative solutions to the complex problems we face.   

It is not easy to gain new perspectives, but it is not impossible. Educate yourself by reading books, listening to podcasts, or just having deliberate conversations with those who are different than yourself, conversations which may be awkward for both sides. I never asked the women around me if the environment was hindering their ability to serve, but I should have. I challenge our Airmen to do the same. If you are looking for a starting point, read the articles referenced below. If you feel ready to undertake a more difficult challenge, seek out a situation where you become the minority to experience what others may be feeling. I, unknowingly, found myself in that position and it has made me a better Airman, leader, and person.

………..

Ram Reddy is an officer and pilot proudly serving in the US Air Force.

References

1. Grant, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant on Why Women Stay Quiet at Work. The New York Times. [Online] 01 12, 2015. [Cited: 08 08, 2020.] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/opinion/sunday/speaking-while-female.html.

2. Katheryn Heath, Jill Flynn, and Mary Davis Holt. Women, Find Your Voice. Harvard Business Review. [Online] 06 2014. [Cited: 08 08, 2020.] https://hbr.org/2014/06/women-find-your-voice/.

3. Rogers, Brittany Karford. When Women Don’t Speak. BYU Magazine. [Online] Spring 2020. [Cited: 08 08, 2020.] https://magazine.byu.edu/article/when-women-dont-speak.

Invisible Women: Advancing Nation Defense Strategy through modernizing Human Systems Integration

By Jessica Ruttenber

Dedicate to WASP….your story doesn’t end here.

“For decades, the United States has enjoyed uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain…today; every domain is contested—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace” (National Defense Strategy, 2018).  As China develops as a strategic opponent within the evolving Great Power Competition, another competition has emerged; talent competition.  By 2030, China will have four-times the U.S. population and fifteen-times the number of STEM graduates.  China’s growing numbers, combined with ongoing academic reforms, place them at an advantage to leverage their human capital for the People’s Liberation Army.  

As China grows, the U.S. struggles to find quality recruits.  In 2018, the DoD released a report stating that 71% of young adults in the U.S. are ineligible for military service due to health, fitness, and educational factors. To maintain the military’s lethality, the U.S. needs to modernize its capabilities to attract and retain talent to hold a competitive advantage.  Failure to do so will result in our inability to remain a strategic competitor.  

Currently, the United States Air Force’s aircrew height standards are based on a 1967 anthropometric survey that accounts for only males. The required standing height of 64 inches to 77 inches and sitting height of 34 to 40 inches is documented in the Air Force Instruction 48-123 and the Medical Standards Directory (MSD).  The MSD is used for a flying class physical upon entry into service. Without a waiver, the standing height requirements eliminate 44% of the U.S. female population between the ages of 20 and 29, compared to only 3.7% of males.  For minorities, the sitting height requirements eliminate 74% of black females, 72% of Hispanic females, and 61% of Asian females.

As the United States population continues to evolve, so must our approach to Human Systems Engineering.  The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the nation is on a trajectory for an emerging majority-minority and White/Non-Hispanic population cross by 2025. The USAF’s total force of officer aircrew is 85% white, with 2% black and 5% Hispanic. With female aircrew representing 8% of the total force, being a female of diverse ethnicity is to be the underrepresented of the underrepresented. Yet our U.S. population, and thus recruitment pool, is half female.

Women consist of 5% of Air Force pilots.  For fighter pilots, this number drops down to 2%. These numbers are staggeringly given that it has been 27 years since serving in combat was open to women.  Although the reasons for low female representation in aviation are multifaceted and complex, height and stature is a significant factor restricting a large portion of the recruitable population.  To compete with China’s human capital advantage of 4:1 per capita, each of our pilots must be even more capable. Simply put, the U.S. can’t afford to continue to drown in self-imposed engineering barriers. 

Every year, the Air Force has more applicants than pilot slots, but those candidates’ competence varies.  A strong argument can be made that these engineering barriers force the Air Force into selecting less qualified candidates, given that a significant amount of the competition is artificially eliminating from competing.   Would you rather have ALL of the best-qualified pilot candidates competing or only those who meet a self-induced physical standard constructed under a 1960s contracting model that does not correlate with airmanship and capabilities?

How is it possible that in 2020 the Air Force still designs aircraft and flight equipment based on predominantly male standards?  Simply put, in a very complicated acquisition process, the Human Systems Integration requirements are established by the users.  In other words, if you only sample the “current” aircrew demographics whose entry requirements are based on the 1967 height standard, then the Air Force continues to perpetuate these restrictions.  In 2011, the USAF funded an Aircrew Sizing Survey (ACSS) to replace the 1967 Survey (Choi, et al, 2014).  However, due to funding limitations and utilizing a “volunteer sample strategy,” too few females and non-Caucasian males were surveyed to account for minority demographics adequately (Choi, et al., 2016). 

With the data acquired, it was possible to utilize ACSS as the updated anthropometric database for the male USAF Aircrew Population; however, the female USAF Aircrew Population database had to be derived from the 2012 Army Anthropometric Survey (ANSUR II) (Hudson, et. Al., 2016; United States Army, 2012).  The use of the ANSUR II data as a “workaround” to account for the lack of female representation in the ACSS is an equivalent example to the use of a waiver process as a “workaround” to account for the lack of female representation in FC1 anthropometric requirement (Rigollet, 2017). Both are Band-Aids, which will not produce the enduring solutions required to ensure our military recruits the most capable personnel. 

Accurately noted, “One of the most important things to say about the gender gap data is that it is not generally malicious, or even deliberate.  Quite the opposite, it is simply the product of a way of thinking that has been around for millennia and is, therefore, a kind of not thinking” (Criado Perez, 2019). Senior military and Congressional leaders have been trying to address female fitment issues. But due to an absence of success with identifying the real barriers to entry, and the institution’s lack of holistic innovation in developing next-generation technology has only addressed the symptoms. Peeling back the layers further, we can identify an outdated acquisition model is the root cause of the problem. 

In 2002, a cockpit evaluation was conduction by the Airmen Accommodation Lab to determine accommodation envelops for all USAF.  Later, an algorithm representing those envelopes was developed into a WebPASS system to determine if individuals could safely perform their crew station’s necessary actions for exceptions to policies (ETPs). Those ETPs are subjective to the approval authority. Since 2015, of the 210 height waivers that were applied by women, 89% were approved.  However, those wavered individuals were restricted to a handful of aircraft. Thus, while a quick and overt solution, it does not resolve the problem of ensuring the most qualified individuals are piloting the most advanced aircraft in the world.  Waivers only mask the underlying issue and masquerade as a sustainable solution.  For example, the F-15 accommodates only 8.9% of females. The B-52 14% and the A-10, 28.9% of females are eligible due to stature limitations.  Most of these wavered individuals cannot fly a fighter, a career field that has only 2% women and historically generates the greatest number of senior leaders serving as the highest echelons within the Air Force.  Mobility aircraft accommodation is slightly better, but the C-130 and C-17 eliminate 1 out of every 3 women compared to a staggeringly small number of 1-2% of men. Will these disproportionate standards be the same for the next inter-theater airlift or a next-gen fighter? 

It is understandable and logical to not use female demographics in legacy aircraft designed before women were permitted to fly in combat (1993). However, dated standards are used today, 27-years later.  The original F-35, Joint Strike Fighter Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS), eliminated approximately 55% of females due to historical engineering constraints.  When the Undersecretary of Defense of Acquisitions (Dr. John Deutch) was informed of the lack of accommodation, he directed the development of a solution that would permit at least 80% of eligible females to operate the aircraft 7 (Hudson, 2003).  However, after congressional pressure, the Human System Integration standards were changed to develop an aircraft that accommodated 97.5% women. This is the design that is available today. 

Unfortunately, while the F-35 accommodates 97.5% of women, the pilot candidate must first meet the standards for the preceding training aircraft, the T-38 (41.5% female accommodation), to have the opportunity to compete. Until the T-7 replaces the T-38, 57.5% of females will be restricted from flying the F-35. The T-1 is another a major limiting factor as the mandator aircraft trainer for mobility aircraft with 57.9% female accommodation due primarily to sitting height. Since 2016, AETC approved a 1-inch cushion to open the aperture, which allowed approximately 20 individuals to receive a height waiver 27-years after students began flying the T-1.

Source: United States Air Force Research Laboratory

Unlike the officer system, for the approximately 15,000 Career Enlisted Aviators (CAE), no evaluation has been done to determine a waiver process. Female representation of the CEA remains at 8%.  Regarding such a disparity to CAE career field admission, career fields that are directly tied to the National Defense Strategy, such as Airborne Cryptological Analysts (linguists), who utilize foreign language skills to analyze messages obtained during a flight, are significantly understaffed.  Typically, these linguists fly in the back of surveillance aircraft.  Their only physical requirement is to egress the aircraft as a normal passenger would, yet they are held to the same height standards as the pilots who fly the aircraft.  Instead of assessing the enlisted crew duty stations and tasks, these career fields elected to lower their academic standard for entry in the Defense Language Aptitude Battery scores. As a result, the career field is fully manned, but the program’s attrition rate has dramatically increased.  These positions could have been filled by any of the 44% of the female population who measured under 64 inches, which would have met the original linguistic standards. Instead, the career field standards were lowered instead of increasing the recruited population by eliminating an artificial barrier that had nothing to with competency in the actual career field- linguistics. The cost of the study for that one aircraft would have only cost $125,000.  The Air Force is not taking risks in the right areas.

The problem is not isolated to aircraft design; it is in everything from G-suits, maternity uniforms, aircrew flight equipment, and even defender’s issued body armor. It is no secret that the military has struggled to design and provide available equipment and uniforms for female members.  In 2016 Maj Whitney Pratt, call sign WASP, was an F-15 Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) flying a routine mission.  A breakdown in communication between her and the pilot resulted in an 8.5 G break where she found herself in the wrong body position.  Under eight and a half times her weight, her 93 lb head and 16.5 lb helmet snapped to meet her knee and pinned her in a folded position for the turn’s duration, injuring her.  When she landed, she had no feeling in her left arm and intense pain through her shoulder and neck. WASP, her Commander, and her physical therapist identified that her ill-fitting flight equipment significantly contributed to her injuries. The size and weight of her helmet severely aggravated the symptoms down her neck and arm. The weight and distribution of the 44-lbs survival vest across her shoulder and neck caused her ribs to sublux, making her movements like turning her head or supporting her arm on her hand controller difficult, if not impossible. 

Regardless of the equipment WASP was wearing that day, the injury would have occurred. However, due to a lack of adequately sized equipment for her smaller size, she carried extra weight, resulting in increased severity of those injuries. The ill-fitting equipment contributed to her inability to recover and return to flying status.  The Air Force lost an investment of millions of dollars and years of training of this highly trained WSO due to ill-fitting equipment. After a long battle to recover her health, a Medical Evaluation Board declared Captain Whitney Pratt unfit for continued military service duty. She dedicated her last year working with Air Combat Command on designing proper fitting equipment for women, such as bladder relief systems used by bombers and fighter.  Last month her service ended, but her story doesn’t have to.

This gender gap is not unique to military service. This representation of ergonomics and engineering designs has primarily focused on males. Test dummies, which are historically based on the average male stature, are typical examples of a design that neglects women and, consequently, puts their lives at risk. Caroline Criado-Perez discusses in her book, Invisible Women, how women are put at risk on the road. “Men are more likely than women to be involved in a car crash, which means they dominate the numbers of those seriously injured… But when a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and 71% more likely to moderate injuries.” It wasn’t until 2011 that the U.S. started using a female crash-test dummy. Even with the addition, there are some that question the testing accuracy. For pregnant women, the consequences are more severe. Although a pregnant crash-test dummy was created back in 1991, testing with it is still not governmentally-mandated (Criado-Perez, 2019).

This disproportionate gender data is not unique to just the private sector and has unfortunately been adopted in past contracts awarded to governmental engineering standards. It highlights the preeminence in which women are disproportionately acknowledged or studied regarding both safety and engineering standards. This has extended into what is accepted, yet outdated, standards used by the armed forces. This is an abdication of opportunity to entry for almost half of the American population, one that our military cannot risk perpetuating if we intend to remain globally competitive.  

The solution is that the aircraft should fit the human rather than the human fit the aircraft. If the military considered and designed their equipment, gear, and uniforms to the population it recruits from, rather than from limiting legacy designs, they would not have to spend such a significant amount of time and resources trying to fix a self-inflicted barrier. 

A step in the right direction is the recently awarded Next Generation Ejection Seat (NGES) to upgrade the existing systems on the F-15, F-16, F-22, B-1 and A-10 will increase its weight range to 103 to 245 pounds to be more accommodating to both smaller and larger stature individuals. According to Jennifer Whitestone, from the AAL, “reducing barriers for women to join the USAF obligates Human Systems to safely and effectively protect smaller personnel.” From the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, Dr. Reed emphasizes the need for a neck model. Women are 3-times more likely to experience neck injuries; the neck circumference is the largest discriminator between men and women due to the female’s smaller cervical circs as well as smaller musculature. AAL’s ongoing efforts will define the deficits and identify solution requirements, but continued funding is needed to expand future Air Force readiness and capability.

The Department of the Air Force Women’s Barrier Analysis  (DAFBAWG) Women’s Initiative Team (WIT) has been tracking and researching anthropometric barriers. Recently, the WIT identified these barriers and presented a solution to Assistant Secretary of Acquisitions, Dr. Will Roper.  Dr. Roper not only supported the much-needed change that is essential to our ability to compete for talent but also mandated in a 31 July policy change that Air Force “use the central 95 percentile of the entire U.S. recruiting population for all future acquisitions in aircrew flight equipment” (Air Force Guidance Memorandum 2020-63-148).   Additionally, a CEA study will be funded to evaluate the current USAF aircraft inventory, led by the Air National Guard, which will update its underrepresented database. 

Over the last couple of decades, there has been a significant focus on symptoms instead of accurately identifying the sustained illness, the actual barriers to entry. Waivers are one-off exceptions that are not persistent fixes and present their own unique obstacles to entry into the military force. It is paramount that the military finds innovative ways to access the greatest possible talent. The current problems are self-inflicted barriers which are not unique to only Air Force aircraft ascensions but to all of the services.  It makes sound business sense to financially invest in longstanding solutions rather than hemorrhaging out money and quick fixes to bandage sustained problems of high attrition rates or barriers to access. Historically, diversity has been treated as a luxury we can’t afford during fiscal restraints. When considering the next strategic competition, we can no longer discount nearly half the potential recruitment population due to historic standardization. It is imperative to our Nation’s very survival to transform how we conduct business.   

Dr. Roper and the WIT’s vision have trailed blazed next-generation military ascensions to help successfully meet the emerging challenges that will face addressing Great Power Competition. However, history has shown that bureaucracy, fiscal restraints, and competing “priorities” will delay the acquisitions, design, and fielding of female fitment just as it did to update its database in 2012.  Senior leaders must continue to hold their commands accountable to expedite these changes while accepting reasonable risk to ensure an accelerated solution.  The current process is outdated. New innovative methods must be embraced, and the “that’s how we have always done it” mentality should be crushed out of the system. Complacency is the enemy of innovation. Innovation will secure global prevalence.  

With all combat jobs in the U.S. military open to women, Congress and the Secretary of Defense should follow the Air Force’s lead and mandate that all acquisitions, especially for weapons systems; Personal Protection Equipment (PPE); Aircrew Flight Equipment (AFE); and uniforms, use the central 95% of the population it recruits from. The PPE, AFE, and uniforms need to be as readily available for female warriors as their male counterparts. Additionally, an in-depth study should be dedicated to bringing clear understanding and analysis of the actual barriers instead of finding “workarounds” that masquerades as longstanding solutions. Finally, proper resources and funding should be immediately supported by data-driven recommendations, followed by periodic accountability reporting at the senior leader level.

The 21st Air Force Chief of Staff, General David L. Goldfein, made diversity and female fitment one of his top priorities. Through his last days, he continued to make female fitment a priority despite countless competing issues that were consistently highlighted during his final days in office.  As the Air Force takes another giant step forward and begins implementing new acquisitions policy, I leave you with Goldfein’s closing remarks, “we’ve got to make sure that we build the environment out there where the right thing is easy, and the wrong thing is hard,” after all, our democracy depends on it.

***

Edited by Megan Biles

Women’s Initiative Team Anthropometric members: Lt Col Jessica Ruttenber (lead), Maj Andrea Harrington (lead), Lt Col Christi Opresko, Maj Chandra Fleming, Capt Lauren Daly

Special thanks to Jennifer Whitestone and Chief Christopher Dawson

Notes:

Air Force Instruction 48-123 (2019, May 13) Medical Examinations and Standards

Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and readiness. (2013) Qualified Military Available Study

Choi, H., Coate, A. , Belby, M., Hudson, J Whitehead, C. Zehner, G., & Fleming, S. (2014). Aircrew Sizing Survey 2011. Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio : 711th Human Performance Wing

Criado-Perez, Caroline. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. New York: Abrams Press, 2019.

Davis, Michael, Jake Johnson, and Jacob John. Rep. USAF Aircraft Accommodation Analysis. JointBase San Antonio-Randolph, Tx: AETC Studies and Analysis Squadron, 2019.

Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America. Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2018.

Rigollet, Taylor S. “One Size Does Not Fit All: Removing Unnecessary Barriers To Entry In The Pilot Community.” Department of the AIr Force Air University, June 1, 2017.

Hudson, J., Baker, M. P., Davenport, I. N., Lafferty, C., Whitestone, J., Tharp, E., & Taylor, N. (2016, November 6). USAF Anthropometric Accommodation Assessment. Air Force Research Labs, 711th Human Performance Wing and Infoscitex Corporation, a DCS Company.

Rigollet, Taylor S. “One Size Does Not Fit All: Removing Unnecessary Barriers To Entry In The Pilot Community.” Department of the AIr Force Air University, June 1, 2017.

United States Army. (2012). 2012 Anthropometric Survey of U.S. Army Personnel: Methods and Summary Statistics. Technical Report Natick/TR-15/007.

I Believe You: Three Words to Inspire Cultural Change

“There is only one way to look at things until someone shows us how to look at them with different eyes” ~ Pablo Picasso

By: Megan Biles

Our differences are what make us unique. When everyone is able to perform at their highest capacity, organizations are more successful and effective. Transformation comes from ideas brought to life through individuals who are bold enough to share their concerns to challenge the status quo. The challenge facing our leaders is finding a path to inclusion, where all feel confident stepping forward and inspiring change that will lead to transformation. 

Creating this culture starts with believing those who come forward.

How we, as leaders, respond to individual issues and ideas will influence the culture of our organizations. We must believe their concern and experience is real to them, and more than likely, real to many others within that community. There is significant power when “my” problem becomes “our” problem. 

There are three responses to personal issues that I have experienced from leaders. The first response is to be discounted for the idea or concern. This may be because the leader does not believe it is a significant problem or does not feel they have the resources to address it. This may because the issue does not personally affect them, or they cannot relate. You can visibly see the dismissal or disregard for the issue in their eyes, tone, or lack of actions. When the dominant majority does not concern themselves with the needs and concerns of the minority, people have a tendency to stop contributing to the success of the mission. Additionally, studies have shown that creativity and innovation used for solving problems will decrease when individuals do not feel respected and fear their ideas will be publically criticized.1 Who would want to lead, or be a part of, that kind of team?

The second is the acknowledgment that it might be an issue, but then you are asked to prove it. You are asked to come back with more data “to convince” them there is an issue outside of your perspective. This may stem from a well-intended desire to want to help. It is natural to want proof and be equipped to be able to further the issue to a solution. The initial response of “prove it” as it stands alone, puts the burden of proof on the individual who may already be hesitant about coming forward and this action immediately breaks down trust. More than anything, a response of “prove it” states the problem is not believed at face value.

This response is often seen when trying to work through the chain of command and hoping to get to the actual policy maker. Interim leadership may be cautious or skeptical supporting an issue they do not understand or cannot relate to and thus freeze momentum under the guise of requiring supporting justification. This is used as a stall tactic, often driven by a stability bias, a desire to not rock the boat or maintain the status quo,2 or due to the fact that they do not want to associated their name and weight behind that particular issue. It can be difficult to get honest feedback on how your team is doing due to several layers of supervision before something filters up to your level. How can we get revolutionary ideas to those who can implement them? How can we prevent ideas and issues stalling due to interim leadership?

Both of these responses are discouraging and will deter that person, and others, from bringing forward issues in the future. It tears down trust and sends the message that individual needs are not prioritized. There are many who are watching when “the one” comes forward and is vulnerable with their problem. There are many who are waiting to see if “the one” is heard, and if they can inspire change. And, there are many who are learning as “the one” is brushed to the side and forgotten.

This will influence what “the many” do in the future, when they have their own problems and burdens to face. This will influence the trust they have in the system to bring their own problems forward, whether they too believe that their issues can be solved. In an organization, when my problem becomes our problem, that loudly proclaims that the institution values the individual’s needs. There is significant power, belonging and trust that stems from my problem becoming ourproblem.  

That brings us to the third, and the most powerful response we can give. The response that will change an organization and make all the difference is to say, “I believe you.” What can I do to help? How can you and I team up to make this change?

To create a cultural change where all feel valued and included, we must begin by saying, “I believe you.” The challenge of creating a cohesive culture is finding a way for every person within our organization to feel valued and heard. There is power in listening that is underestimated. Empathy can be just as powerful as action. 

By reacting with “I believe you,” this response immediately sends a message that their experience is valued. For anyone who cannot relate or does not understand the concern brought forward, spend time asking them to explain. Gaining understanding is not the same as being asked to prove it. Seeking to understand fosters trust and shows a willingness to accept an alternative way of thinking. Ask from a heart of wanting to empathize; make their problem your problem.

Instead of telling them to convince you, ask them to empower you to help. Ask them to give you the knowledge and background so you can understand and use that knowledge to convince others to fix the problem. The leaders who I have seen embody this approach not only tell me, but they also show me they care about the issue and have empowered me to come alongside them and make impactful change.

This is not a call to blind acceptance and action, but instead asking for self-reflection, to be intentional with our initial reactions to others. Does the initial reaction encourage a culture of trust, or does it make people feel marginalized? Do we hear the problem and immediately think they are wrong? Or can we say, I believe this is real to you and I want to understand better. The hope is to stimulate a candid dialogue, where the leader either better understands and is equipped to help or this response encourages a mentoring opportunity to grow the other.

That is where transformation happens, because people are always watching, seeing how leadership responds. If they see a leader who stands with the individual and shows that their problems matter, that will encourage others to bring theirs issues and ideas forward. Some of the best leaders view vulnerability as a strength.  Society at times has an incorrect correlation between vulnerability and weakness.  Your initial response will either validate the individual’s concerns or further deepen a divide of the majority and minorities of your organization. “I believe you” transforms the perception of vulnerability from weakness into strength. 

If we can approach individual challenges with an open mind, genuinely believing their issues matter, and ask how we can partner with them to make meaningful change, then we can create a culture of inclusion. There is nothing more powerful than acknowledging that another’s individual experience matters to you. Trust can be immediately earned by believing and offering to collaborate to inspire change. We can transform the culture and improve the lives of those around us through such a simple first step. Those who come forward will likely surprise you with their innovative solutions, and it will show your entire organization that we value each individual and what they bring to the table. Through simply believing, we can inspire cultural change. 

The next time someone brings you his or her problem, I hope your response is “I believe you.”

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Edited by Jessica Ruttenber

Artwork created by Miranda Embrey. Instagram @ Miranda.e.creative

Citation:

[1] Benjamin Wolff “Is Diversity The Key To Creativity?” Nov 10, 2019 https://www.forbes.com/sites/benjaminwolff/2019/11/10/is-diversity-the-key-to-creativity/#55a730d5155b

[2] Eva Rykrsmith “5 Biases in Decision Making – Part 2” Jun 7, 2013 https://www.quickbase.com/blog/5-biases-in-decision-making-part-2