Retention – Problem or Solution?

“You cannot run away from weakness; you must some time fight it out or perish; and if that be so, why not now, and where you stand?” – Robert Louis Stevenson

“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” – Harry S. Truman

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There is a proverb in the Bible–not surprisingly, found in the book called Proverbs–which warns the reader that “Even a fool is thought wise when he holds his tongue.” Sometimes the best thing one can do in a crisis or confrontation is shut up and move on. Sometimes the worst thing one can do is vent their frustration in public.

I don’t always remember that.

Couple those lapses of judgment with a very public forum (i.e. Facebook), and you have a recipe for disaster… especially when you vent frustration about your workplace and your management. Thankfully, I don’t make a habit of Friending my chain of command.

Still, I sometimes get pointed responses – either in person or in social networks. I get it that some people don’t care for whining, and some people don’t see complaining as befitting a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer. I imagine many in the military would think the right thing to do is salute smartly, shut the mouth, and execute the assigned task as ordered.

So, to the whiner, these folks essentially say, “If you don’t like your job, get out.”

I see a problem with that.

I do like my job. I like it enough that I care when it seems we’re doing it wrong.

Quite frankly, I believe that’s why the organization pays me. I’m not just my crew position, qualification or office title. I’m still in the military because the Air Force still values my input and experience, and they’ve seen fit to put me in a position that should carry some influence. They expect me to bring that experience and judgment to bear in making decisions and informing leadership about the effects of how we’re doing business, good or bad.

Sometimes whining is a refuge for the weak and lazy. But sometimes it’s the last resort once dialogue has been shut down and a culture of oppression or fear has silenced official professional dissent. If I can’t say anything that changes what’s wrong, I’m still going to bring it up from time to time.

If all the “whiners” get out, then no one is left to raise concerns.

As a young Airman recently rededicated to the Christian faith, I once thought that the Base Chapel was the place to serve, and I considered cross-training into a Chaplain Assistant job. Surely there, I could really do something good, or so I reasoned. Then a chaplain friend of mine suggested, “If all of the believers get out of their career fields and work in the Chapel, then who’s left to be a positive influence in your workplace?”

Religious issues aside, the logic is sound in this case. What sort of people are we trying to keep?

Do we want only “yes men” who are willing to bend any rule and accept any treatment in order to avoid a confrontation with those above them? Does our organization need leaders with a mind of their own, or do we want only those who parrot back the opinion of leadership? If that’s what we want, then, sure, telling the dissenter to “get out” is good advice.

Are our retention rates a problem, or a solution?

In my career field, at least, we have a shortage of people. We are constantly striving to replace the experienced folk we lose to retirement and separation. We’re grabbing people with the bare minimum qualifications and putting them in demanding positions of authority, and the pool we can choose from is getting more and more shallow each year. We are considered a stressed career field.

So if I’m frustrated by the stress of the job, and if we’re doing things that encourage people to leave our career field, maybe more people getting out only adds to the problem. It’s certainly not fixing anything.

There are people who need to be helped on their way to the door: those who take no initiative, those who disobey orders or violate good discipline, those who produce little or no value added for their unit. The person complaining and trying to prevent harm to his or her institution is not in the same category. They might be going about it wrong, but they’re doing something right. They’re taking ownership of their work.

“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” is a tough-sounding, hard-hitting response that’s great if you just want people to shut up and color. The problem is, you all trained me to cook, and I’ve come to love it. So I’m going to keep stirring the pot, and I’m going to speak up if you’re screwing up the recipe.

That’s why you hired me in the first place.

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3 thoughts on “Retention – Problem or Solution?”

  1. The Problem with all of this is that you think the military is still in the habit of turning out leaders. Not so I say. Oh, sometimes leadership will come to the forefront of a person’s abilities and manifest itself, but for the most part the military says you want to lead, check these boxes, do this charity work, and write your performance reports this way…that shows you want to lead. So you have someone who can build a great picture of what the military thinks a leader should look like, but it is more like a paint by numbers than anything else…which is how you get a room full of yes men.

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    1. Good points. Another friend suggested that perhaps as we lose good people who won’t put up with crap, we’re left only with the yes men and the poor leaders. Sure, good leaders are still out there, but they’re fewer and farther between… and perhaps not what we’re really looking to promote. As you said, there are certain expectations to fill.
      A good leader also knows when and how to say “No” both to his/her subordinates as well as to his/her superiors. We don’t seem capable of doing the latter. (Ok, maybe they don’t say “no” to leadership, as that would be bad. But they need to be able to communicate “We can do this, or that. Which is the higher priority?” And they need to be able to fight when they are told “Both are the higher priority.”)

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