by MSG John W. Russell, US Army
In every field of endeavor, employees often subject themselves to evaluative analysis as a means to stratify the workforce according to workers’ contributions and talents. Accordingly, one might assert a heuristic—albeit fallacious—judgment that such stratifications would occur through objective reasoning and fair performance appraisal. In reality, performance appraisals tend to lend themselves to objective and subjective reasoning as a byproduct of the conspicuously critical nature of the human psyche (Randel, 2023).
Unlike most other professions, the U.S. Army must navigate a dizzying array of constraints that other medium to large-sized American corporations do not contend with. The chief constraint among these is the mortal consequences of not placing the right personnel into the correct leadership roles due to overinflated evaluations and cognitive biases. Overinflated evaluations and cognitive biases limit the efficacy of the Army’s current evaluation reporting system by imposing ethical dilemmas when stratifying top performers among their peers.
Ethical Dilemmas in U.S. Army Performance Evaluations
When analyzing a problem, one must take great prudence when applying the ethical dilemma moniker. When faced with a right versus wrong or a bad versus good set of circumstances, one rarely must question the validity of their choice. Furthermore, one is rarely willing to question the choice before them for fear of challenging their moral composition. Ethical dilemmas convey a much greater conundrum because they often present a good-versus-good scenario in which one finds themselves embattled with two competing values or beliefs where the ethically correct answer is not always the self-evident answer (Krem, 2016). Ethical dilemmas fall into one of four categories in cases such as these. Krem (2016) outlines the four categories as “justice versus mercy,” “short term versus long term,” “individual versus community,” and “truth versus loyalty.” However, this work will only examine the issue through the optic of the truth versus loyalty ethical dilemma.
The Problem with the Truth Versus Loyalty Dilemma in Performance Evaluations
The truth versus loyalty ethical dilemma speaks to the natural human tendencies to unwittingly engage in bias or overinflation as they ascribe subjective narratives to their subordinates. Bias and overinflation continue to plague U.S. Army evaluation reports despite specific directives to capture performance honestly, accurately, and completely in officer and Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) evaluation reports (Evans & Robinson, 2020; Department of the Army [DA], 2019b; Randel, 2023). In the truth-versus-loyalty dilemma, raters and senior raters find themselves torn between their duty-bound loyalty to the organization or, more holistically speaking, the institution and adversely affecting their subordinate’s career due to average or sub-standard performance. In such a scenario, rating officials must dispense with the preconceived notion that everyone merits an evaluation in the top-third percentile of the rated population and protect the system’s integrity. Although having concern for a subordinate’s career is markedly altruistic in both intention and outcome, it does little to protect the sanctity of a moderately well-designed performance evaluation system despite minor flaws.
Performance evaluations continue to elicit conflict under the truth versus loyalty ethical dilemma due to the architecture of the evaluation system. In the context of performance evaluations, one must astutely observe the number of officers or NCOs in the rated population and constrain their most-qualified evaluation reports to less than 50% of officers and 24% of NCOs (DA, 2019b). This percentage-based evaluative mechanism is the forced distribution mechanism of performance evaluations (Evans & Robinson, 2020; Holt & Davis, 2022). While the forced distribution system offers a marked advantage in terms of reducing overinflation, it is also amenable to favoritism and diverging loyalties in the hands of the wrong senior leader (Holt & Davis, 2022).
In most cases, the ethical challenge is far less nefarious but nonetheless harmful to career progression. In small rating pools, for instance, senior raters often adopt the practice of maintaining a buffer to avoid degrading the creditability of their profile (Evans & Robinson, 2020). A senior rater profile is simply a metric that caps the number of most-qualified evaluations at >50% / > 24% of the population of officers or NCOs, respectively (DA, 2019b). The cascading effects of maintaining a buffer can potentially prevent deserving officers and NCOs from receiving the most-qualified ratings they have earned in order to maintain the rating official’s profile credibility. The root cause of unethical stratification is both procedural and pejorative in nature.
Root Causes of The Ethical Dilemma in Evaluations
Aside from the aforementioned profile considerations, procedural issues that catalyze ethical dilemmas in evaluations predominantly rest in the irregularity of touchpoints between the rated officer or NCO and their supervisors. Army regulations contain specific language that directs commanders, raters, and senior raters to conduct timely counseling with their subordinates (DA, 2019b; Department of the Army [DA],2020). Despite the precise, prescriptive language of Army regulations, officers and NCOs often receive their first performance feedback as they sign their annual evaluations (Randel, 2023).
This practice does not allow the rating official to communicate expectations or for the rated officer or NCO to adjust their performance to meet those expectations. For instance, a newly promoted captain may fill a battalion logistics officer role without experience. Without frequent touchpoints to communicate expectations, the captain may find that they do not have the necessary knowledge, skills, or behaviors to navigate their new role successfully. Additionally, frequent touchpoints through timely counseling provide rating officials with opportunities to develop a better understanding of their subordinates to avoid pejorative, unconscious biases.
Conscious biases in the modern Army occur far less frequently than unconscious biases due to the current socio-political climate in the United States and the veracity with which Army senior leaders address conscious biases in their organizations (Holt & Davis, 2022; DA, 2020). Unconscious biases are much more difficult to detect than conscious biases. As the name implies, unconscious biases are only sometimes within the rating official’s span of awareness without deep introspective analysis and objective consideration of the findings from such analysis. Coincidentally, the two types of biases discussed above correlate with two types of thinking. System-1 thinking occurs autonomously in the form of quick judgments resulting from environmental stimuli and often reinforces unconscious bias, whereas system-2 thinking is slower, more deliberate, and entails thoughtful consideration (Evans & Robinson, 2020; Holt & Davis, 2022). For example, a Soldier that arrives at their unit in poor physical condition may receive an evaluation that does not accurately reflect any of their other strengths due to a rating official’s predisposition regarding Soldiers in poor physical condition.
In the above example, the Soldier falls victim to the pitchfork effect, where one disregards someone or something based on perceived negative attributes despite other positive attributes (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command [TRADOC], 2016). In such a scenario, the Army and the organization miss an opportunity to mold a young officer or NCO for positions of greater responsibility due to unconscious bias. Throughout one’s career, the cumulative effect of biases toward specific attributes can adversely affect a Soldier’s potential for selection to senior leadership positions or command positions (Holt & Davis, 2022). To illustrate this point in continuance of this scenario, a Soldier rated poorly for inadequate physical fitness may become discouraged and not perform to their fullest potential during the next rating cycle, thereby triggering a self-fulfilling prophecy of sub-standard performance. Without the benefit of self-awareness and emotional intelligence, rating officials lose the intuition necessary to recognize and counter cognitive biases and garner the power to affect the talent-management model and evaluation efficacy across the force.
Ethical Dilemmas in Evaluations and their Impact on the Force
The central issues impacting the force regarding ethical dilemmas in evaluations are the explicit degradation of trust and confidence, the tacit support of a zero-defect mentality, and the propensity for bias to affect the promotion rates of otherwise highly qualified personnel. All these issues are mutually inclusive in causation and outcome; therefore, they collectively degrade the impartiality of the evaluation system through bias. For instance, Evans and Robinson (2020) discussed a recent study revealing that officers with higher cognitive faculties than their peers had lower selection rates for major, lieutenant colonel, and battalion command by 29%, 18%, and 32%, respectively (Evans & Robinson, 2020). The proposed explanation for this disproportion was that officers with lower cognitive faculties were hyper-compliant, whereas their counterparts were less compliant. To this end, the officers fell prey to the status quo bias when rating officials did not highly enumerate the officer due to divergent thinking or a perceived lack of congruence between the rating official and the rated Soldier personalities (TRADOC, 2016). Similar to the previously discussed pitchfork effect, the halo effect applies when the discussion turns to overinflated evaluations.
Overinflated evaluations also have a residual case-and-effect relationship with talent management. Army leadership often discusses placing the right people in the right jobs. Overinflation potentially places the right people in the wrong jobs by attributing undue positive emphasis to performance that would otherwise appear marginal or average to an impartial third party. In civilian corporations, biases that contribute to overinflation affect the rater tendencies more than the performance of the rated employee by a variance of approximately 62% (Holt & Davis, 2022). Overinflation proves disastrous in the U.S. Army due to the mortal consequences of assigning the wrong person to a critical leadership position, such as a battalion or brigade command team.
Succinctly stated, inflated evaluations do not provide enough granularity to adequately stratify top performers from mediocre performers with inflated evaluations (Holt & Davis, 2022). For example, a military police special reaction team (SRT) responsibilities include drug interdiction, felony warrant execution, hostage rescue, and active shooter response. As an entry team leader on an SRT, leaders find themselves charged with the team’s safety and the community’s safety. Placing a person with poor decision-making skills, or worse yet, someone that has overly aggressive tendencies, may create conditions that exacerbate the severity of the original law enforcement response. While overinflation and bias may not necessarily run rampant in every evaluation, the problem has proven significant enough to warrant the exploration of viable solutions.
Solutions to Ethical Dilemmas in Performance Evaluation
The proposed solution to this ethical dilemma is a two-part solution that begins with more frequent touchpoints between the rating official and the rated Soldier. One of the most significant contributing factors to the deficiencies in the U.S. Army evaluation system is that many rating officials do not conduct counseling per prescribed command policies and Army regulations. The Army should adopt quarterly evaluations versus quarterly counseling sessions to counter the penchant for abandoning regular counseling that units often develop when overcome by events on the training calendar.
On the surface, one might assume that quarterly evaluations would increase the rating official’s workload. To address this issue, the Army should adopt the Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale (BARS) evaluation system. BARS is an evaluation system that captures quantitative and qualitative mechanisms by measuring performance against examples of desirable behavior and anchoring each category to a numerical rating scale (Kissflow, 2022). Holt and Davis (2022) and Randel (2023) also support a system that embraces quarterly evaluation reports. Upon implementation, BARS quarterly reports would produce an aggregate score that would serve as one measure of performance leading into the annual performance report.
Human resource professionals refer to the Army’s current annual performance report as the Management by Objectives (MBO) evaluation system. In this system, rating officials and the rated Soldier agree upon objectives or goals, then stratify the rated population based on individual performance during the rating period (Kissflow, 2022). In light of the Army’s officer and enlisted marketplace, where human resources professionals align a job applicant’s knowledge, skills, and behaviors (KSBs) with projected job openings, the MBO evaluation system has merit, yet requires some revision.
The second part of the solution requires combining the BARS and the MBO, then eliminating narrative statements in favor of identifying the KSBs that the rated Soldier demonstrated during the rating period. The KSB identification would then supplement the quarterly numerical aggregate from the BARS evaluations. This system would produce quantitative and qualitative enumeration results based on the BARS evaluations and inform future assignments by highlighting KSBs that support positional requirements in a completely overhauled evaluation structure.
While this evaluation structure would glean some definitive benefit over the current system, one critic suggests that evaluations are an exercise in futility. Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s loosely stated philosophy is that evaluations should focus on systems and processes, not the individual and that doing the inverse constitutes a low yield return on investment (Hunter, 2012). Conversely, others posit an alternative viewpoint that the absence of performance feedback produces significantly more anxiety than the evaluative process (Goler et al., 2016). In a study of performance evaluations for Facebook employees, 87% of the polled interviewees indicated that they preferred to keep performance evaluations, provided they included more transparency regarding performance expectations (Goler et al., 2016). In any case, any changes to the Army’s performance evaluation system must undergo an ethical review through the ethical lenses of rules, outcomes, and values.
Viewing the Proposed Solution through the Lenses of the Ethical Triangle
The ethical triangle posits that people should test all solutions should against three distinct criteria for one to deem them ethically sound. Those criteria are the rules, outcomes, and values lenses (Kem, 2016). Each of these lenses offers unique, ethical perspectives from complementary, yet slightly different points of view that encapsulate the legal or procedural mandates that must apply, the societal mores that should apply, and the ends one wishes to reach. Viewing an ethical dilemma through only one of these lenses produces shallow results that do not leverage sufficient critical thinking commensurate with the complexity of the problem. Further exploration of the recommended solution to the performance evaluation problem requires the use of the triad of lenses and will begin with the rules-based approach to ethical decision-making.
The Rules-Based Lens
The rules or principles-based lens posits a certain universal truth regarding the tenets of acceptable conduct or natural law (Kem, 2016). To paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, the culmination of one’s experience determines one’s disposition; however, one’s life experience produces an understanding of social mores that govern one’s conduct (Kem, 2016). Viewing the proposed solution through the rules-based lens produces conclusive evidence that the solution meets the intent of Army regulations that both mandate counseling and discourage bias in evaluation reports. These outcomes through this lens comply with congressional mandates and Army regulations concerning performance evaluations.
For example, the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, section 509C, directs a review of the Army’s performance evaluation system and solicits recommendations for improvements from the Comptroller General of the United States (Randel, 2023). The proposed solution satisfies the congressional directive and provides a more unbiased approach to performance evaluations as directed in Army Regulation 623-3 (DA, 2019b). Additionally, reducing the subjectivity of current evaluations will set the conditions for leaders to stand firm on rules-based issues with evaluations and facilitate a broader discussion regarding outcomes-based issues.
The Outcomes-Based Lens
The outcomes, or consequence-based lens, follows closely behind the rules or principles-based lens. It examines this solution in terms of outcomes contingent on the results one wishes to achieve (Kem, 2016). Evaluation systems must remain fair and impartial to identify high performers that possess the potential to perform at elevated levels of responsibility. In the case of Army performance evaluations, the outcomes through this lens include protecting the integrity of the evaluation system and instilling trust and confidence in the chain of rating officials.
Viewing this solution through the outcomes-based lens indicates that reducing subjectivity also reduces bias and allows rating officials to assess character and performance on the complete set of Army values and leader attributes (DA, 2019a). As a hallmark of Army leadership, integrity is a central theme in this solution recommendation because it encourages leaders to accept honest mistakes during the rating cycle to allow for development and individual initiative (DA, 2019a). The outcomes of an improved evaluation system under this solution include rating officials that embody the Army values, empowering subordinates that learn and grow through potential mistakes, and a better talent management system across guided by values-based decisions.
The Values-Based Lens
The U.S. Army is a values-based organization; therefore, decisions requiring a values assessment adhere to values-based ethics. Fittingly, the final lens of the ethical triangle evaluates this solution through Army values. Virtue-based ethical decisions contrast outcomes-based ethical decisions because they establish concrete limits of right and wrong. Additionally, individuals learn values from interactions with others that subscribe to the same values (Kem, 2016). The primary outcome of this solution is that it provides rating officials with a figurative compass with which they can judge whether an action or decision is on course with service standards. This solution adheres to Army values because it encourages the rating official to exercise duty, loyalty, integrity, and personal courage by refusing to overinflate evaluations and avoid bias. Furthermore, rating officials protect the institution’s integrity by offering hard truths when necessary. Doing so enables leaders to consider a range of perspectives and remain ethically grounded (DA, 2019a).
Overinflated evaluations and cognitive biases limit the efficacy of the Army’s current evaluation reporting system by imposing ethical dilemmas when stratifying top performers amongst their peers. Although the Army’s current evaluation system is lacking in mitigating overinflation and unconscious bias, prospects of other systems exist. Amalgamative possibilities such as a hybrid BARS-MBO system can provide objective, evaluative solutions as an alternative to the current Army evaluation system. Viewed through the three lenses of the ethical triangle, the BARS-MBO system shows promise as a mechanism of improvement on the current Army performance evaluation system. Despite the anxiety associated with performance evaluation, people experience greater anxiety from not receiving accurate and timely feedback, which necessitates ethical evaluation programs. Evaluations drive talent management, therefore, ethics must drive evaluations.
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Master Sergeant John W. Russell is a Military Police Senior Noncommissioned Officer. He has served in every leadership position, from Patrolman to First Sergeant. He currently attends the Sergeants Major Course (Resident) Class 73 at the US Army Noncommissioned Officer Leadership Center of Excellence. His civilian education includes a Bachelor of Arts in Homeland Security and a Master of Professional Studies with a concentration in Security and Safety Leadership from George Washington University.
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