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Mar 22

Find Common Ground to Smooth Workplace Transition

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Dr. Fred Mael is an industrial organizational psychologist who has talked about the shock that veterans may experience, coming from a team-oriented culture, when they encounter new civilian colleagues who seem more self-focused rather than focused on the enterprise as a whole. I asked Dr. Mael to share his perspective on this and other related issues with Military Leaders in Transition.

VSB: Dr. Mael, how can transitioning military leaders become better prepared to succeed in a civilian workforce environment that at times may appear to “devalue teamwork” and instead tend to reward individually-focused and rewarded effort?

MAEL: Serving in the military often (though not always) involves working under intense conditions, living in close proximity with coworkers, and undergoing traumatic and/or exhilarating experiences together. The possibility of sacrificing one’s life for other team members intensifies the team experience. Officers who leave military service often say that what they miss most about military life is the teamwork and camaraderie, as well as the patriotism and higher purpose.

It is a natural human characteristic to want to identify with a higher purpose and to be embedded with others in common cause – however those who join the military for extended periods are probably on the high end of these needs.

The typical civilian work place cannot adequately satisfy these needs. The purpose of the work is more mundane, the stakes are lower, and coworkers, even competent ones, may be less invested in the “cause”. People work a set number of hours and then scatter into their different non-work worlds – that is, if they even come to a communal office at all. Trends toward telework, reliance on virtual teams, and electronic communication can increase feelings of isolation and depersonalization of relationships. There may be some room to inject a degree of teamwork but, except in rare cases, it won’t be the same as the team experience in military service.

Transitioning military leaders should be prepared to understand and accept that:

  • civilian coworkers have equivocal commitment to the work organization (they will leave for better jobs);
  • the work organization has equivocal commitment to the employees; in the private sector, they may hire you today, but let you go next week if they so choose.

 

The purpose of the work (in the civilian workplace) is more mundane, the stakes are lower, and coworkers, even competent ones, may be less invested in the “cause”. …Trends toward telework, reliance on virtual teams, and electronic communication can increase feelings of isolation and depersonalization of relationships. There may be some room to inject a degree of teamwork but, except in rare cases, it won’t be the same as the team experience in military service.

VSB: Some would suggest that the longer one has served in the military, the harder it can be to find new purpose and focus in a second career. What are your thoughts about that?

MAEL: Transitioning senior military leaders will likely be entering a civilian workplace in which their new co-workers do not necessarily understand nor fully appreciate past military accomplishments. Subordinates and peers in the new environment may be unaccustomed to hierarchy, obedience and may have a completely different set of values from those shared in military life.

It is essential that transitioning service members take time to understand and learn the value system of new colleagues and subordinates. Make the effort to find commonalities that exist and establish a common frame of reference. Demonstrating your competence can go a long way to win new colleagues over, even if you think your seniority and experience should speak for themselves.

VSB: You have talked about the need for transitioning veterans to find outlets, outside of the military, “to express their higher values of teamwork and altruism.” Would you elaborate on what this means and why it is so essential?

MAEL: A person needs to know themselves – their personalities, their hierarchy of values, and what will give them purpose. Some veterans may find the lack of team-orientation a relief and smoothly transfer their life goals into making a good living and enjoying recreation. Others may find that working for a nonprofit captures some of the altruism though it may still lack the cohesive bonds of military life. For some, the workplace will never be enough and other options – such as religious involvement, volunteering and/or political activity – will be needed to satisfy higher order needs.

VSB: Any other advice you might share with senior military leaders in transition?

MAEL: Many civilian coworkers will have never met anyone who served in the military, much less in uniform. Depending on age, gender, or political views, they may react to you with awe, guilt, disinterest, or disdain. Be prepared to win people over in terms that are relevant to them. Ask questions of co-workers and do your best to understand their value system. You do not have to accept their values as yours but you will want to exhibit empathy, the ability to see the world from another’s viewpoint. You have already done this as a leader – it just means expanding the scope of this skill.

Dr. Fred Mael has worked as a consultant for over 25 years, including applied research, and project management in areas such as organizational culture, employee and customer loyalty, best practices studies, and development of performance management systems.  He worked for the US Army as a researcher/manager for eight years and has been a consultant to private and public sector organizations including the US Army, US Navy, and US Air Force.

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