How to End Sexual Abuse in the Military

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Reassuring comments from President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel aside, the Department of Defense’s approach to preventing sexual assault is doomed.

It’s nice that President Obama “has your back” if you’re assaulted. It’s good that Chuck Hagel is filled with moral outrage.

But no one has stepped up to what it will take to actually prevent the next 26,000 victims.

I’ve read dozens of case reports of sexual assault under investigation. One that haunted me was of a woman—let’s call her Jessica—who was raped by one of her “battle buddies” while deployed in Afghanistan. She was the seventh victim of the same alleged perpetrator in 18 months.

Cases like this compelled me to analyze the military’s effort to stop sexual assault. I compared it to other successful behavior-change efforts I’ve studied, ranging from stopping violence against women in South Africa, to reducing criminal recidivism in Singapore, to preventing AIDS in Thailand.

I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t.

The U.S. military’s effort is wanting in three significant respects:

1. Measure safety, not just assaults.

Prevention won’t happen simply because enough perpetrators are publicly tried and punished. Let me be clear: it certainly matters that Jessica’s rapist is punished. But if the goal is to influence substantial reduction in assaults, military leaders must change norms, not just administer justice.

Extreme acts happen more often in an environment where lesser transgressions are treated benignly. For example, when a soldier brushes up against another, makes a sexually offensive expression, or posts pornographic material, all bystanders must do to show acceptance is say nothing.

While it is essential to establish world-class investigation, prosecution and punishment systems, these won’t be enough. Hagel needs to hold leaders accountable for creating a safe culture.

This means that every member of the armed services must be able to answer three questions affirmatively:

— If I were harassed or assaulted, I’m confident I could safely report it and that I would be treated with respect and fairness.

—  Leaders in my location make it clear that they will not tolerate harassment or assault in any form.

— If I were at risk of being harassed or assaulted, I’m confident the soldiers around me would intervene and protect me.

2. Hold all commanders accountable.

Currently, there is lip-service support for creating a safe culture, but there is no system for holding leaders accountable. Military change efforts have degenerated into buttons, banners, conferences and training.

Change will happen not when we hold another conference, but when every commander is held accountable by administering a survey consisting of the three questions above. Then, refuse to promote any commander whose scores fail to meet an acceptable level within a short period of time.

As of 2011, a Government Accountability Office report showed that 52% of women in uniform believe their colleagues can get away with sexual harassment. Many also report that incidents of harassment have to occur multiple times before leaders address them.

Today, those making strong statements of outrage are far too high up the chain to solve a problem for the Jessicas of the world. What ultimately matters is whether her immediate commander — who is in a position to set standards, witness sentinel behaviors and intervene quickly — actually feels accountable to protect her.

3. Measure frequently at the belly-button level.

Good commanders don’t give vague orders. They know that when everyone is accountable, no one is accountable. So, they ensure every order is attached to a “belly button”—the single person who will be held singly accountable to results.

Currently, sexual-assault numbers have two problems. First, they are aggregated across the Army so no one can pinpoint how many assaults happened on a specific officer’s watch. And second, they are calculated every two years instead of in pace with officers’ promotion and transfer schedules. Today’s numbers were the responsibilities of last year’s commander. As a result, no one is held accountable.

If officers know their fitness reports depend on creating a safe culture, they would find a way to do it.

Today, individual commanders are only held accountable for activities—i.e., sending their troops through training.

As a result, there is tremendous pressure to make the training quick, cheap and painless—and very little pressure to make it effective.

We must stop holding officers accountable for activities. We must let them do what they do best – lead. We must also give them clear definitions of success and feedback. My proposed survey should be administered twice annually, giving every commander clear feedback on whether their people feel safe.

Those who fail to improve should be removed from command.

In more than three decades of consulting, Joseph Grenny has advised thousand of leaders on every major continent, from the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies to the barracks of the U.S. military. Grenny is co-author of four New York Times bestsellers, including Influencer.