Leadership Lessons: Self-Assessment Beyond "Understand the Importance Of..."

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. --
"We need a strong commitment from each of you to sustain this purposeful momentum going forward."
~ Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen Mark A. Welsh III & Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James A. Cody

Late last month, the Air Force launched three new performance feedback forms for mandatory use starting July 1, 2014. The Airman Comprehensive Assessment (ACA) worksheets, AF Form 931 (AB-TSgt), AF Form 932 (MSgt-CMSgt), and AF Form 724 (2Lt-Col), are designed to enhance open communication between rater and ratee. What I found most intriguing in reviewing the products is Section III, Self-Assessment, which is replicated in nearly identical format on all three ACA worksheets. Its uniform existence suggests ratee self-assessment in the covered areas is considered to be of value for every Airman (at least for grades Airman Basic through Colonel). This piece offers some thoughts on ensuring that completing Section III actually adds value, rather than deteriorating into a mundane "pencil-whip/check the box" exercise.

Per AFI 36-2406_AFGM3, para 2.8.4, the self-assessment section is to be completed by the ratee alone and is meant to assist the rater when accomplishing the overall assessment. The section covers four major topic areas with each area containing subtopic statements that all begin with the phrase "Understands the importance of..." The ratee performs the self-assessment by placing either a "Y" for "Yes, "understands" or an "N" for "Need more information" next to a corresponding subtopic sentence. Once complete, the ratee forwards the ACA worksheet to the rater. An abbreviated version of Section III is provided below to help clarify:

RESPONSIBILITY: Understands the importance of...
1. ...doing the right thing even when it is unpopular or difficult.
2. ...responsibility in the use and care of equipment and assets.
3. ...admitting to shortcomings or mistakes.
4. ...refusing to participate in inappropriate behavior(s) despite social pressure(s).
5. ...accomplishing tasks in a timely manner.
6. ...providing support and welfare of family and ensuring they are prepared for separations and/or reunions. (If applicable)

ACCOUNTABILITY: Understands the importance of...
7. ...AF Core Values/standards and how others should be accountable.
8. ...application of situational awareness and sound judgment.
9. ...living within means financially (budgets, saves, spends responsibly, etc.).

AIR FORCE CULTURE: Understands the importance of...
10. ...leading by example.
11. ...respecting self and others.
12. ...looking after fellow Airmen and their families (to include while fellow Airmen are deployed).
13. ...showing enthusiasm in being an Airman and inspiring others to reach their full potential.
14. ...upholding the proud heritage of the Air Force and the importance of displaying the professional characteristics of an Airman at all times (24/7).

SELF: Understands the importance of...
15. ...setting aside time to assess self, as well as personal and professional goals.
16. ...setting aside quality time to be with family and friends.
17. ...striving to meet personal/professional goals.

Unfortunately, the structure of the self-assessment questions might tempt some ratees to automatically place a "Y" next to all 17 subtopic sentences. For example, most ratees are unlikely to place an "N" indicating a "Need more information" on something as straight-forward as "Understands the importance of doing the right thing even when it is unpopular or difficult." Moreover, it could be argued that the congruent phrase "Understands the importance of..." generally does not go far enough for meaningful self-assessment. As an example, some might honestly state they "Understand the importance of leading by example" and yet neither practice, nor have any idea how to begin to engage, in the behavior. In this case, if a "Y" is placed next to this subtopic sentence, what value is added, either for the ratee or the rater, in the ACA process?

So what is the solution? As self-assessments are conducted, I submit that ratees should use a liberal interpretation; that is, go beyond, the phrase "Understands the importance of..." Said another way, ratees could read the subtopic sentences in a way that allows them to reflect more ownership over the "action" (e.g., "Does the right thing even when it is unpopular or difficult."). So, in practice, if I'm giving an honest self-assessment, I completely "Understand the importance of accomplishing tasks in a timely manner," but I struggle with the issue on occasion (e.g., I am past my due date on this commentary). With an expansive reading of "Understands the importance of..." or reading it to reflect more ownership over the "action" ("Accomplishes tasks in a timely manner."), perhaps I should consider marking an "N" next to that subtopic sentence to enable a purposeful dialogue on the topic between rater and ratee to occur.

In my position as Staff Judge Advocate, I've seen Airmen, at various levels, who have struggled with one or more of the above-listed subtopics. Obvious examples include failures in the following areas: "respecting self and others," "admitting to shortcomings and mistakes," and "refusing to participate in inappropriate behavior(s) despite social pressure(s)." Although I know a vast majority of you are not experiencing issues that would ever be brought to my attention, I challenge each of you to set aside time to properly assess yourself (after all, that is listed as #15 above). As you go through the self-assessment, think deeply on each subtopic sentence, be honest, refuse the urge to quickly place a "Y" next to each one, and go beyond "Understands the importance of...."