Evaluating Army Officers, Top to Bottom

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The 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, Fort Bliss, Texas -- Army photo

For years there has been debate inside the Army about the optimum way to assess the performance of its officers. In an institution with more than a half-million people in uniform, what yardsticks work best to promote the good officers while weeding out the bad? Plainly the service needs some help: a recent study found than more than 80% of Army leaders had witnessed a “toxic” leader in action in the past year.

Heck, students at the Army War College write papers on the topic (say what you will about the military, you don’t find many other institutions funding this sort of strategic navel-gazing). Reformers have suggested the problem is due, in part, to an Officer Evaluation Report (OER) system that allows only superiors to rate subordinates. The views of peers and subordinates are not merely ignored — they are not even sought.

But top-down reviews can lead to a distorted view of an officer’s competence. “One criticism of the current system is that an officer can advance merely by impressing his superiors, who may be miles away from his unit’s operations, the independent Army Times newspaper noted recently.

“Only the led know for certain the leader’s moral courage, consideration for others and commitment to unit above self,” retired three-star general Walter Ulmer wrote nearly 15 years ago in Parameters, the Army’s professional journal. “If in fact we prize these values and want to ensure that we promote those who have routinely demonstrated them, some form of input from subordinates is required.”

The Army, at long last, is taking a tiny, tentative step to correct this.

The service is launching what it calls its (Nomenclature Alert!) Multi-Source Assessment and Feedback/360 (MSAF) process. Think of it as a Rate-My-Professors for soldiers. The Army has set up a website for subordinates to weigh in on their commanders, and taken steps to ensure they can praise — or gripe — anonymously. “The Target Leader will never be able to tie your name to your answers,” the website promises. (Target Leader? Got to love the Army’s sense of humor.)

All this might make nascent George Pattons or Walter E. Kurtzes nervous. But not to worry. “The MSAF provides input from peers, superiors and subordinates which will help the rated officer develop as a self-aware and adaptable leader,” the Army said last week. “Results of the feedback will still remain confidential and only be available to the rated officer and used for self development not evaluative purposes.”

An Army news story added:

While the input they get will not influence their OER — or even appear on their OER, because only the officers themselves can see the information — their participation will be noted on the OER form. “It has no impact on the evaluation,”[Chief, Evaluation, Selection & Promotion Division, Adjutant General Directorate, U.S. Army Human Resources Command, George] Piccirilli said. “It’s just a tool that says it’s important, and that you need to do one. It’s kind of a forcing function.”

Bottom line: at least initially, the 360-degree evaluations are a secret one-way street from commanded to commander. They won’t tell more senior officers if their subordinates are loved or hated by their troops. “The hope is that while they didn’t know they were a butthead before, now they’ll know,” says an Army Human Resources Command official. Gotta love that Army sense of humor.