Leading Civilian Staff – A Medic’s View
By Dr Stephen Carey
Life appears to be increasingly complex and Defence is not immune from the challenges this presents. Recruiting and training those with the required skills can be difficult, and drawing upon the capabilities and emotional perspectives of civilians may prove beneficial, especially in niche areas. A complex and nuanced solution is often required to a complex and nuanced problem.
A good example of this is the provision of medical care to Army personnel. Here, the contributions of Civilian General Practitioners and Civilian Consultant Psychiatrists are key, particularly when it comes to providing help for combat-related mental health symptoms. Moving from an NHS Practice to a military one has provided a new and welcome challenge for me, and I have seen first-hand the impact which well-managed teams which include civilians can have. The importance of this relationship should not be underestimated.
This seems to be well recognised at the highest levels of UK of the Army and Defence. In his Land Warfare Conference 2018 address CGS talked of “a different sort of whole force”, of “people whose aptitudes are highly sought after in a global market” and “whose instincts are more independently minded and less hierarchical than some in uniform would feel comfortable with”. In his 2018 Annual Lecture at RUSI, CDS talked of “integrated career structures that are blended between the Services and our civilians”
The key commercial collaborations which underpin the Enterprise Approach of the Ministry of Defence already embody this. At the lower level, however, and within our units, recruitment is one thing; leading, managing and motivating civilian staff and making them feel part of the team is quite another.
Welcome to the Military Family
It seems to me that the teams in the Army are structured around the concept of a family. Many will have grown up in it, adopting the family’s values and standards, subconsciously becoming imbued with family history, traditions and idiosyncrasies. Others may join the family later, reconnect, or be part of an extended family group. Helping people to feel part of the family when they start is important.
A vital part of welcoming new family members is investing time in getting to know them. And the insights into human development which we get in psychiatry training may prove helpful. In formulating problems, we look at predisposing, precipitating and maintaining factors. This means looking at the early life experiences which shape us all, specific experiences which appear to have led to issues becoming manifest and factors which keep the problem running. To solve a problem, you need to understand what is going on.
A firm and fair foundation often works best. A more difficult start is not unusual. Later inter-personal difficulties may well reflect difficulties in early life. The perception of being treated unfairly seems to be especially toxic and must be avoided: this may relate to the burden of responsibility and lack of reward earlier in life – both relative to peers. This can then resonate down the years, manifesting itself in problems at work. This may help to understand why people might get upset at issues which might appear minor, and lead to dysfunctional teams.
The Family Rules
Sean McFate, in his recently published book The New Rules of War recognises the need for changing and thoughtful approaches to address the increasing complexity of Defence. He ends his book with some specific rules and guidelines that may prove particularly helpful when working with civilians:
- Welcome your civilian staff to the family and explain the family rules. Social interactions and events may prove useful. Social media feeds can be good, provided there is not too much duplication of content, and that you can bear cringe-provoking hashtags.
- Explain the values and standards which are expected. Some additional space may be allowed for independence of emotional manoeuvre, for sensitivity, conduct, dress and action. These are all very well and may be necessary but they must be clearly defined: certain ground rules must apply to all.
- Talk about communication in the family: the rules, the conventions.
- Spend some time with your civilian staff. Understand them and their motivation in doing this work. Support them. Develop mutual trust. Do not assume they have a deep understanding of the military culture, values and standards. Do not assume they will bring a towel to residential courses. Do not assume they will consider themselves to have arrived late if they arrive on time. Try to understand their personal and previous work culture – this sensitivity and sense of being understood is of real and practical value and not simply a worn mantra.
- Identify individual strengths and, indeed, weaknesses. What can the individual can contribute? What unusual experiences do they bring: could this be beneficial multiplier?
- Deal quickly and effectively with any problems which arise – a fair, supportive but clear approach – and try to work out what is happening. There is not always time to explain decisions, but sometimes there is. When there is, do so.
- Contracts of employment should be properly written to ensure the transactional element of leadership can be used to supplement the transformational aspects.
- There will certainly be no difficulty covering family history and traditions: a sense of some association and continuity with the past should also fortify and motivate civilian staff.
- Integration into the command hierarchy may involve some flexibility and some parallel command structures but should not be impossible. Civilians may lead in niche areas and follow in others. I have already been impressed with how this can work in practice – when done well it reflects an organisation that is confident in itself and its abilities.
- Try to avoid stupid “own-goals”. Being asked “are you entitled or non-entitled?” in the lunch queue on my first day had an adverse effect that went beyond the additional cost. It is not beyond the wit of man to devise a better way of referring to your civilian staff. Think before you speak!
Complex problems need nuanced and often complex solutions, and civilian staff can contribute to this. Understanding them as individuals and helping them to understand the organisation in which they now work is essential. It has been shown that a happy, structured and supportive unit is key to the effectiveness of civilian staff and will also help to avoid and mitigate mental health problems – I see this day after day. Good leadership holds a family together, and helps it thrive – to its benefit and in turn to that of our society. US General Stanley McChrystal recently commented that “the interaction between leaders and followers is the real magic”. I think he is correct.
For more suggestions on how to lead civilian staff, read six pieces of advice on leading on the staff, including the value that civil servants bring to the headquarters: Staff Ninja or Staff Monkey?