The Frightened Tier

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Throughout your career as an officer, a tour as a staff officer is inevitable. The form of staff can vary greatly, such as Numbered Air Force (my tour was at 12th Air Force), Major Command (my tour was at Pacific Air Forces), or in a joint environment (currently serving at Joint Forces Headquarters Department of Defense Information Network). For the most part, these tours are similar enough for a singular problem to manifest multiple times. I’m sure this problem exists elsewhere within the Air Force, but I’m fairly certain of the common occurrence staff. I call this problem “The Frightened Tier”. Similar to “The Frozen Middle”, this problem is slowing down our ability to accomplish objectives at the speed our leadership expects and frustrating a rising group of leaders who may decide to leave the organization due to not being able to work through this inefficiency.

This problem of The Frightened Tier is not caused by a lack of resources or time but mainly fear. Fear of failure, to be precise. In Former Secretary of Defense and Former Commandant of the Marine Corps James Mattis’ new book “Call Sign Chaos”, he writes about his experience in building his own Marine staff and working with a staff built with an Army background. For the Marines he led as the Commander of Task Force 58, he wrote, “By eliminating redundant functions, I kept my own staff exceedingly small. Rather than two hundred, it numbered thirty-two…When someone answered a phone, he dealt with each question tersely and generally on the spot.” As for his perspective of Army Central Command, he wrote, “The Army approach provides more detailed oversight by the higher-level staffs. ARCENT was eager to support TF 58, but they needed coordination time and a deluge of information…They needed data, a lot of data…Much of this my lean staff didn’t know, because we never asked such questions of subordinate units.”  From my experience on my respective staff tours, I have seen far more examples of the slow, bureaucratic process then the agile, operationally-focused process. By design, staff tours aren’t closest to the fight and have other challenges to consider. However, these challenges are often self-induced and can be overcome through earning and developing trust at the lowest levels of staff. Even better would be to push the decision making to lower levels and holding them accountable, which is arguably the hardest part. A threat coming from a staff officer towards an officer in a command position, even as a squadron commander, does not carry much bite. The level of accountability must be served from commander to commander. Only then will guidance and direction be taken seriously. This effort requires both commanders to communicate with each other themselves, not through a staff proxy. If the subject is important enough, the higher commander will explain to the lower commander his or her expectation to personally communicate at the appropriate timing and tempo within the battle rhythm. By empowering execution at the lowest level possible, and both trusting and holding each other accountable for our portion of the mission, The Frightened Tier can be conquered.

I chose the term “Frightened” because I believe that fear is the root cause for inefficiency. When staff officers are responsible for summarizing actions at a lower level, the fear of reporting wrong or making a wrong decision can run high, thus resulting in the need for more data to help build their confidence level. These data points may not be important at the tactical level, and thus not being tracked to provide to the staff officer. Since the staff officer is afraid to make a decision without this data, the workload is pushed up to the next level within staff to make a decision. The same process repeats: asking for more data, not having the data available, pass up the problem to the next level. You can see how this cycle adds layers to time to a decision that should have been solved in the first layer. Even worse is when a decision is clear to be made, but a staff officer wants to double-check the work and sign off on the decision before any action is made. There are definitely certain decisions that require the appropriate level of authority to answer, but an agile organization will want to clearly articulate and minimize these decisions for the benefit of all. When these expectations are laid out, fear can be reduced and actions can be taken quickly because empowerment has been established. 

The bureaucracy and fear that feeds the Frightened Tier is hampering our ability to keep up with the speed of our adversaries, and we must build trust and accountability in one another to overcome this barrier of inefficiency. The desire for more information to build the perfect course of action must be replaced with empowering decision making at the lowest levels that are aligned towards an established commander’s intent. If the action is aligned to the intent, the Frightened Tier needs to get out of the way and let those willing to take the action to move forward. Every result may not be successful, but we can’t learn if we don’t have room to make mistakes. The solution to the Frightened Tier is staring right at us, we just need to overcome our individual fears so that the team can progress.

References: Mattis, J. and West, B., 2019, “Call Sign Chaos”, United States, Random House, pp 69-70.

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