Scientific Approach to Solving Army Retention and Recruiting Problem
Self-Determination Theory and Authentic Leadership Theory
By Bol Ring
The Army Retention and Recruiting Problems
Recruiting and retaining Soldiers is a significant problem for the Army. In his dissertation research, Dr. Robin Chetri (Ph.D.) discovered the turnover rate of the U.S Army to be 29.7%, creating a critical skill gap for DoD in general and the Army in particular (Cetric, 2021). As an all-volunteer military, the Army relies on recruitment and retention programs to maintain its manpower. However, in addition to losing personnel at a higher rate, the Army also fails to replace those numbers by recruiting new Soldiers. For example, the Army only accomplished 40% of its recruiting mission by the beginning of July 2022, which might lead to missing its recruiting and retention goal three years in a row (Goheen, 2022).
While the millennials' high-turnover issue is shared across all sectors, the Army's turnover is worst compared to the public and other services (Cetric, 2021; Locke et al., 2022). The Army has the highest turnover numbers compared to the Marines (18.6%) and the private sectors (26%), with the rest of the services falling between the Marines and the Army (Cetric, 2021; Locke et al., 2022). Millennials are not only leaving the Army but also do not want to join or are not qualified to join (Goheen, 2022; Spanjaart, 2022). Millennials' refusal to join the military could be explained by their perception of the military in general. To demonstrate, 57% of young people believe they would be psychologically and physically damaged if they joined the military (Goheen, 2022). In addition to not wanting to join the military, 71% of young people are not qualified to join the military even if they wanted (Spanjaart, 2022).
With a pressing issue on both recruiting and retention fronts, the Army is heading for a major drought, as explained by a Washington Military Think Tank (Goheen). The problem is not confined to enlisted or conventional forces; it extends to the Officer Corps and Special Forces command. For example, in the Special Operations Commands, some organizations are less than 50% staffed due to a lack of Captains and Majors to fill those slots, creating a leadership deficit that could result in various adverse organizational outcomes (Cetric, 2021; Dyson et al., 2022). Therefore, military retention and recruiting are urgent issues that deserve scholars, military, and policy makers' attention. "We need to clearly understand why servicemembers are electing to get out of the military and to understand what would have kept them in the service," Mississippi Rep. Trent Kelly directed (Grisales, 2022).
Various factors contribute to the Army recruitment and retention problem, ranging from the economy, COVID-19, and social-political and cultural issues. While many factors are outside of the Army's control, there are variables the Army can influence to improve retention and recruiting numbers. Specifically, the Army can address the toxic leadership and unreliable control-centric approaches to motivation and replace them with newer, scientifically supported leadership and motivation models and interventions. It could also incorporate millennials' preferred work characteristics into its policies.
Millennials Values. Millennials are known to have significantly different world and national perspectives from Generation X and baby boomers, making control-centric motivation ineffective in motivating them (Anderson et al., 2017; Seqhobane & Kokt, 2021). They are the first global citizens, highly educated, and extremely adaptive, making their world perspectives global-oriented (Smith et al., 2020; Wong et al., 2021). The millennials want to know "the bigger picture" behind task execution, illuminating the need for Army leaders to take time to explain "the why behind the what." Given that millennials are global citizens, the "bigger picture" should include how their actions contribute to global stability and impact the world rather than localizing it to a unit. Adding to the problem, the "shut up and paint" leadership approach could be detrimental to millennials' appetite for inclusion and recognition. They desire constant and frequent feedback from their leaders, collaboration with each other, and autonomy in their place of duty (Knapp, 2017; Yogamalar & Samuel, 2016). Leadership support, coaching, and mentorship enhance millennials' loyalty to their organizations and leaders (Badri et al., 2022; Marelda & Wikaningrum, 2022). In general, millennials demand more from their leaders than older generations, which sometimes could create frustration for their supervisors (Devi & Jakani, 2021). Supervisor's frustrations may lead to uncivil behaviors such as belittling, controlling, demeaning, and other dysfunctional leadership behaviors, leading to the second factor contributing to retention and recruiting problem-Army leadership approaches.
Army Leadership. Some Army leaders' toxic approaches to leadership could be another contributing factor driving or keeping Soldiers away. As a matter of fact, 80% of officers and NCOs report encountering toxic leadership in the U.S Army, with 20% of the same demographic reporting working directly with a toxic leader (LaFalce, 2017). It could be extrapolated that the number is higher for the lower enlisted. Although the Army experience approximately a 30% turnover rate overall, 20% of DoD service members quit services within two years, making retention a DoD problem (Cetric, 2022). While the Army defines leadership as the process of influencing people by providing [purpose, direction, and motivation] to accomplish the mission and improving the organization." (ADP 6-22), Army leaders might focus on utilizing the wrong type of motivation, such as coercion, pressure, and control, when providing the [purpose, direction, and motivation]. The next scale-up from coercion, pressure, and control might be transaction leadership, where leaders use rewards, negative feedback, or punishment to modify Soldiers' behaviors. Despite which techniques the leader uses, they contribute to the problem if they are controlling-centric. Contingent rewards, controlling leadership, and transaction leadership undermine individuals' basic psychological needs (Gagne et al., 2022). While the control-centric leadership approaches produce immediate results, they degrade essential ingredients to earn people's commitment, loyalty, and trust (Gagne et al., 2022).
Given that Army leaders are often in positions for a short period (1 to 2 years), the pressure to produce immediate results may drive them to approach control-centric approaches. Meanwhile, short-term performance pressure is found to decrease psychological capital (PsyCap), namely hope, optimism, confidence, and resilience (Jang, 2022). As a result, Soldiers may equate leaders' quest for outcomes (training progression, retention numbers, fitness scores, unit days activities) as self-interest leading them to have less loyalty, commitment, and trust toward the leader and the Army. Consequently, leaders' pressure to produce short-term results could be decreasing Soldiers' PsyCap leading them to leave the Army.
Since leaders are the links between the organization and the people, between the Army and the Soldiers, the Army first line leaders (company, platoon, sections) have a significant role in fixing the retention and recruiting problem. Phrases such as "leadership is not likership" and "Leader's plan, Soldiers execute" could send negative perceptions to millennials who value recognition, collaboration, and autonomy. Millennials want to work with leaders they like, have a distaste for control, and want to be included in decision-making (Brand & Walker, 2022; Easton & Steyn, 2022). Army award systems, physical fitness programs, barracks systems, and accountable programs are incongruent with millennials' values due to their control-centric mechanisms.
For example, in taking a ride in Soldiers' daily activities: A Soldier walks up at 0600, conducts PT from 0630-0730, goes to the barracks to take a shower from 0800-0830, is at accountability formation at 0900, and closes out duty day with 1645 accountability. If Soldiers live in the barrack, there is 100% leadership present in the barracks (CQ and leaders checks). Even during weekends, there is a continued leadership presence in the Soldiers living quarters in terms of leaders and CQ monitoring. In addition, if leaders suspect issues in the Soldiers' barracks, they can do "health and welfare checks" anytime in the barracks. One could argue that Soldiers have very little autonomy even in what they should, and frontline leaders can influence that. Meanwhile, millennials value autonomy, flexibility, and work-life balance (Camp et al., 2022; Rank & Contreras, 2021). Army leaders can provide various reasons for having strict accountability systems and their positive effects. However, we need also to consider the negative effects of those accountability mechanisms, which could include retention and recruiting issues.
In addition to the existing programs the Army introduced to tackle the retention and recruiting issues, more avenues could be explored. The Army has already implemented programs to improve retention, including flexible assignment locations, better childcare programs, spouse professional employment, and sexual misconduct and domestic violence resources (Grisales, 2022). The Army's People First Initiative is another comprehensive program for addressing retention and recruiting issues, among other issues. The People First initiative will likely produce positive outcomes resulting in sustainable organizational growth and benefits in the future. As an example, I attended multiple training under People First Initiative as a battery commander, which provided me perspectives on ways to improve Soldiers PsyCap. Therefore, the ball is starting to roll positively in fixing the Army's toxic leadership problem. In addition, facilitating Soldiers' intrinsic motivation through authentic leadership skills is a potential avenue to explore, which could also fall under Army's People First Initiative.
High-Quality Motivation though SDT: The Army can approach motivation from a Self-determination Theory (SDT) perspective and pick a good quality motivation to motivate the force. For example, in his dissertation research, Robin Cetric (Ph.D.) examined the Army retention issues and provided several recommendations. Cetri (2021) expressed the cruciality of solving the retention issues using self-determination theory (SDT)-intrinsic motivation. Using Special Operations officers as the participants, Dyson et al. (2022) agreed with Cetric (2021) in using an SDT to tackle the retention problem in the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). Contrary to the Army's view of motivation as a quantity to be increased, SDT views motivation in qualities-amotivation, extrinsic, and intrinsic. While intrinsic motivation is the highest quality motivation, the Army heavily relies on extrinsically controlling motivation type (lowest quality). For example, in response to the recruiting problem, the Army started pumping money into it, hoping it may solve the recruiting and retention problem, offering up to $50,000 as signing bonuses (Spanjaart, 2022). In increasing the signing, the Army hopes to increase the recruit's desire to enlist in the military. Meanwhile, millennials seek more than a paycheck and are more attracted to organizations' purpose and mission (Locke et al., 2022).
Instead, the Army could appeal to different motivations to recruit and retain millennials. The recruiters could be trained to appeal to millennials' desires for bigger purposes instead of over-relying on control-centric incentives. Army leaders could be trained on participative approaches to leadership instead of autocratic ones. The People First Initiative is already leaning forward in prioritizing Soldiers' motivation, wellbeing, PsyCap, and other constructs to sustain its human capital. While there will be times autocratic leadership is appropriate, it does not need to be the norm for executing daily tasks since it decreases Soldiers' wellbeing and increasing their intention to leave the Army. The Army could leverage intrinsic motivation since it appeals to the people's innate desire for competence, autonomy, and relatedness and evokes the highest human potential (Ryan & Deci, 2000; 2017, 2020). Approaching motivation from an SDT perspective could provide the Army leaders with various tools to influence Soldiers instead of over-relying on control-centric motivation techniques. Self-determination interventions are found to increase leaders' autonomous supportive behaviors, which lead to followers' trust in their leaders, job satisfaction, higher performance, lower distress, and burnout, and decreased follower intention to leave (Slemp et al., 2018; Slemp et al., 2021).
Authentic Leadership. In addition to leveraging intrinsic motivation to solve the retention and recruiting issues (Cetri, 2022; Dyson et al., 2022), adopting authentic leadership as the Army's primary leadership doctrine to solve the retention and recruiting problem is another avenue to explore. Millennials demand a different leadership style from previous generations, and they are found to favor authentic leadership principles - a participative style of leadership (Bertsch et al., 2022; Galdames & Guihen, 2022; Olsen et al., 2021). The centrality of leadership to an organization's success is exemplified by phrases such as, it is the lid that determines the rise and fall of an organization and the fabric that holds organizations together (Dweck, 2016; Maxwell, 2007). Therefore, the recruiting and retention issues fall within the leadership responsibilities. Authentic leadership is founded on trust and authenticity, which aligns with millennials' preferred leadership characteristics (George, 2015). It is a newer leadership model but has been discovered to perform better than transformational leadership in increasing performance in a sport setting (Gregoire et al., 2021). While previous leadership models are ineffective in motivating and leading millennials, millennials are found to favor authentic leadership principles (Aydogdu, 2021). Specifically, millennials prioritize a leader's authenticity, honesty, and transparency over charisma or vision, making authentic leadership the appropriate model compared to transactional or transformational leadership (Army current leadership models). Similar to SDT interventions, authentic leadership interventions are available to increase leaders' positive characteristics that could increase Soldiers' intention to stay. Additionally, authentic leadership intervention increases followers' intrinsic motivation, and there is an app for that (Nubold et al., 2020).
In Summary, recruiting and retention are significant issues for the Army. While the Army has implemented programs to address the problem, more approaches are available to explore. Specifically, the newly developed approaches to motivation and leadership could be a sustainable solution to retention and recruiting programs. While the scientific management approach to leadership and quantity-based motivation approach to motivation were effective in the past, millennials have significantly different world, work, and life values from baby boomers and generation X, making those approaches to leadership and motivation ineffective for millennials. The Army is facing what the corporate community was confronting in the early 2000s, which led to the development of authentic leadership theory. Self-determination Theory (SDT) and Authentic Leadership Theory (ALT) are complementary theories that could address millennials' leadership, retention, motivation, and recruiting problems. Dr. Robins Cetric's (Ph.D.) study on Army turnover and motivation on the conventional force and Dyson, Martin, and Houck's research on the SOF community (Cetric, 2022; Dyson et al., 2022) could be the launching pad for future conversations on these topics. Moreover, the Army People First Initiative could be the platform to take the conversation to Army leaders and Soldiers.
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