By Colonel Robert M. Mundell
The U.S. Army’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion has proven effective in enabling the Army to maintain a competitive future advantage. Strategic outreach programs that increase minority representation and enable the Army to better reflect and represent American society, combined with an emphasis on broadening assignments as an integral part of leader development allow the Army to benefit from two positive outcomes of diversity and inclusion. Socially, an inclusive Army is a positive manifestation of the nation’s espoused commitment to equality, and is particularly important while forward deployed, because the Army represents America abroad. Functionally, cognitive diversity gained by exposing leaders to different experiences better enables the Army to accomplish missions in cross-cultural environments and operate more effectively with joint, intergovernmental, interagency and multinational (JIIM) partners.
The Army’s efforts along these two fronts (i.e. inclusion and broadening) are impressive; however, institutional norms used to assimilate new members into Army culture, combined with embedded leader prototypes in many ways undermine the promise of diversity by suppressing individual identity. Two problems result from this dynamic. First, individuals perceived as contrary to leader prototypes are judged less favorably and are often dismissed, and second, these individuals will either reject the Army, or modify their identity to fit in. These problems prevent the Army from benefiting from diversity, because salient organizations like the Army influence and constrain personal identity alternatives that would otherwise remain dominant in guiding thought and behavior.
The importance of identity
Identity influences how individuals and organizations behave, what is important to them, how they make sense of the world, and how they make decisions. These four factors represent choices and are important to consider within the context of diversity leadership and management. Two important dimensions of identity formation (i.e. social and personal) provide clarity in understanding how and why individuals make choices.
Social identity refers to a social category or group of individuals marked by a label, and distinguished by a set of characteristics, features, attributes, and rules that govern the group. Personal identity includes those distinguishing characteristics, values, and beliefs that people take pride in, and is in many ways unchangeable and socially consequential. Personal identity also develops from an array of factors, ranging from biological and physical attributes, to learned value and belief systems derived from cultural norms, to memberships in social groups and matters of personal style that allow individuals to distinguish themselves from others, and that are essential to self-esteem.
These two interconnected dimensions of identity combine to create essential properties of self-concepts, and as individuals assimilate into Army culture, some of these properties (aspects of identity) warrant change, while the retention of others allow the Army to benefit from individual differences. For example, an individual nurtured in a social setting where lying to law authorities to prevent the imprisonment of a close friend or family member is commonplace and considered honorable, should be convinced to abandon this practice as they assimilate into an organization where these types of choices threaten good order and discipline. Conversely, an individual nurtured in a social setting where the ability to cooperate and compromise are valued cultural norms, could begin to suppress those dimensions if they were embedded in a competitive culture, particularly if individual achievement and worth is attributed to how competitive or assertive they are.
These two diametrically opposed examples of personal choices and preferences are heavily influenced by identity. Therefore, it is important for Army senior leaders to consider how assimilation and prototypes suppress individual identity, and adjust their behavior to leverage individual differences.
The Influence of Prototypes and Assimilation on Individual Identity
Attributes and competencies conveyed in Army doctrine, coupled with enacted leader behavior, shape and develop prototypical leaders. Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 6-22 explains the relationship between identity and leadership by noting that identity influences how leaders learn, and how others perceive them, and notes that effective leadership begins with developing and maintaining a leader identity. It provides a comprehensive framework that articulates what the Army desires in leaders by describing the type of character, presence, and intellect (attributes) a leader must possess to lead and develop individuals and organizations, and achieve results at all levels. The publication emphasizes adherence to Army values; being empathetic, disciplined, physically fit, and mentally agile; and possessing expertise as important attributes. These attributes allow leaders to apply competencies such as building trust, fostering esprit de corps, creating effective unit climates, and getting results.
While the attributes and competencies described in doctrine provide a foundational base for effective leadership, leader behavior, institutional feedback mechanisms, and organizationally endorsed certification and credentialing emerge as the three most significant factors that primarily influence subordinate perceptions of Army leader prototypes. These three factors combine to embed and reinforce organizational assumptions of effective leaders. As an organization matures, these assumptions create self-perpetuating cycles that have lasting effects on organizational norms, particularly as junior leaders use these assumptions to construct their own leader identity. In essence, assumptions create prototypes that constitute a social reality grounded in consensual views that are repeatedly reinforced.
Edgar Schein, a leading scholar on organizational culture, notes that one of the most decisive ways beliefs and norms are embedded in an organization is through visible patterns of observable behavior. Behavior patterns have a profound effect on subordinates in distinct and subtle ways. For example, if a senior leader in an organization demonstrates a propensity for assertive and dominating behavior when interacting with ordinates and the organization consistently accomplishes assigned missions, this type of behavior will have a distinct effect on shaping subordinate perceptions of effective leader prototypes. Similarly, if subordinates observe a senior leader routinely dismiss and marginalize other subordinates that don’t exhibit similar tendencies, this type of behavior will subtly begin to influence assertive and dominating tendencies in subordinates, even if this type of behavior is contrary to a subordinate’s individual identity. Too often, existing leader prototypes in the Army are influenced by leader behavior that fails to acknowledge or value perspectives and character traits that are dissimilar from perceived norms.
Leader prototypes are reinforced in the Army through institutional feedback mechanisms, such as promotion and evaluation processes, and through organizationally endorsed credentialing and certification. These two factors reinforce embedded assumptions of desirable prototypes because they imbue desirable qualities on a leader, mark them with a degree of greater ability and influence, and ultimately facilitate favorable value judgments. They can also distort individual perceptions, while influencing attributions and predictions pertaining to performance and potential. In a coherent, distinct, well-structured, and high performance oriented organization like the Army, this assertion is significant.
In the article, “A Social Identity of Leadership,” author Michael Hogg suggests that group identification, as self-categorization creates or constructs an ideal leader prototype that highlights the most prototypical members with the appearance of having influence in an organization. The legitimacy of the prototype becomes a reality through a depersonalization process that compels individuals to comply with norms and beliefs that are valued. This cognitive process (depersonalization) results in individual members suppressing or shedding their uniqueness to assimilate or conform to group norms. In some cases, depersonalization benefits an organization, because it aligns individual behavior with important prototypical qualities, like being physically fit and disciplined, and possessing technical and tactical knowledge. Salient organizations like the Army in many ways benefit from depersonalization, because common traits among soldiers and leaders enable mission accomplishment. In other cases, prototypes can influence members to make choices and act in ways that are contrary to their deeply embedded personal belief systems.
A very relevant and illustrative anecdotal example of this type of circumstance is captured in an account of a senior female military leader’s comments made during a discussion on leadership. When asked how her identity changed when placed in positions of authority in the military, the officer stated, “I felt as if I needed to be much more assertive in leadership positions if I wanted to be effective…if I wasn’t assertive, the unit wouldn’t take me seriously.”
The above account represents a questionable portion of a belief system associated with the type of prototypical leader deemed effective, and is consistent with several theories pertaining to injunctive norms in organizations.
Similarity Attraction and the Assimilation Process
Individuals affected by depersonalization go through three interrelated processes as they attempt to assimilate into organizational culture. First, they place value judgments on themselves based on expectations associated with defining traits and characteristics of the group they belong to (in-group prototype). Next, they cognitively and behaviorally assimilate these defining traits and characteristics, and begin to develop stereotypic perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. Finally, they begin to view others, both in-group and out-group individuals, not as unique individuals, but through the lens of features that define relevant in-group and out-group membership, which creates implicit and explicit like-mindedness in organizations.
Similarity attraction subjectively shapes perceptions of what a leader is, and must do, and can have a significant impact on evaluation and promotion selection processes in the Army because it creates an unconscious bias in senior leaders. Unconscious bias refers to the instinctive use of social stereotypes and stigmas about certain types of people or groups to judge an individual’s worth in the absence of any other relevant information. Under the influence of unconscious bias, individuals activate irrational forms of prejudgment when they encounter someone that is similar or different—for example, prejudging an individual solely based on their credentials and or certifications, or based on their service in similar units and duty positions. This unconscious bias results in discrimination against organizational members based on their identification with a group that is not similar. This is a natural tendency particularly in a meritocratic-based organization, because meritocracies promote and award members based on alignment and compliance with organizational norms.
Similarity attraction may have some influence on the current profile of U.S. Army general officers (four stars). Of the fifteen (all male) current general officers, twelve were commissioned through West Point, and only three are non-Maneuver Fires and Effects (MFE) officers. Likewise, in this history of the Army, there has only been one non-MFE chief of staff of the Army. Highlighting these facts does not devalue the accomplishments or worth of these senior leaders. Rather it questions the prototype. Are the common qualifications of these senior leaders central to success at the highest levels of senior leadership, or are there other credentials and certifications, along with different career experiences, that make others just as capable? The demographic profile of Army generals represents a belief system in the Army influenced by institutionally legitimized prototypes that acknowledge MFE assignments as a significant discriminator in selecting the Army’s most senior leaders. At times, this belief system is disparaging based on similarity attraction, and perhaps represents a prevalent unconscious bias deeply rooted in Army culture.
Adjusting Leader Beliefs and Behavior
Overcoming the negative effects of leader prototypes and assimilation requires leaders to effectively lead and manage diversity by leveraging individual differences to create unit climates and an organizational culture that allow the Army to transition from simply tolerating diversity to valuing and maximizing the promise of diversity.
Adjusting senior Army leader beliefs and behavior will require senior Army leaders to place greater emphasis on enhancing the influence of minority and divergent perspectives. These types of perspectives are often dismissed, particularly in an organization heavily dependent on assimilation and conformity like the Army. However, livelier discussion occurs when divergent perspectives are fostered and constructive conflict is welcomed.
Unfortunately, recent feedback from junior officers reveals that a lack of leader innovation is one of the most significant areas in need of improvement in the Army. The same survey similarly indicates that only 40% of junior leaders feel that their superiors actually implement good ideas presented by subordinates. These two organizational issues are impediments to building trust and establishing cohesive teams.
Innovation often emerges from ideas and concepts not aligned with prevailing norms or majority influenced ideas. Reluctance to embrace counter-insurgency doctrine early on during Operation Iraqi Freedom and initial institutional resistance to the development and fielding of the Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP) serve as salient examples. Embracing and leveraging the minority perspective in the Army represents a paradigm shift due to institutional norms that result in organizational members conforming to majority perspectives and norms in an attempt to assimilate.
Individual conformity to organizationally sanctioned norms and behaviors is not simply a matter of superficial compliance; rather this cognitive transformation represents internal change. As a result, the legitimacy of a prototype in a salient organization like the Army becomes crystallized and embodied in personal belief and value systems. Therefore, senior Army leaders must model the type of behavior that values and enhances individuality, facilitates open and honest dialogue, enables trust and the development of cohesive teams, and ultimately allows the Army to benefit from the promise of diversity.
Colonel Robert M. Mundell is a faculty instructor in the Department of Command Leadership and Management, United States Army War College, and has served in this capacity for three years. He is a 2009 graduate of the Army War College, and has two combat tours in Afghanistan, most recently as Commander, Regional Support Command North, NATO training Mission Afghanistan. He is a career infantry officer, and has served in an array of command and staff positions, to include Deputy Brigade Combat Team Commander, and Infantry Battalion Commander.