Military Communication: Problems, Precedents and Solutions

A. Background Premises

1. While the Marine Corps is a unique war-fighting organization with a unique mission and capability, it is important to remember that it is still ultimately an organization. As such, it is susceptible to the same structural problems that any other organization is susceptible to, especially when it comes to organizational communication. Because the Marine Corps is a unique organization, it has unique communication needs.

2. America, and indeed the world, is entering a new era of rapid communications technologies that change the way we live, work, play, and fight wars. Per reference (1), “Most of us seek a firm direction that is outmoded. We need new thinking, new criticisms, new knowledge, new approaches, and new understandings. Creativity is more important than ever.” We have become an information society, which is “an environment in which more jobs create, process, or distribute information than directly produce goods,” and this change has impacted the military as well.

3. Reliable, timely and accurate communication is the key to organizational excellence and should therefore be a top priority for the Marine Corps. Per reference (1), “Numerous scholars have gone as far as to suggest that organizations are essentially complex communication processes that create and change events…Put simply, organizations of today and tomorrow need competent communicators at all organizational levels.”

4. Difficult problems sometimes require unconventional thinking. Daniel Pink, bestselling author and conceptual thinker, writes “the future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind – creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers.” Modern technologies have overloaded organizations with too much information; many require people with a different tool set to make sense of all this information.

5. Specifically, problems related to communication have been effecting not only Electronics Maintenance Company, but potentially 3d Maintenance Battalion as well. It is not unreasonable to assume that communication problems may be effecting other units within the Marine Corps as well.

B. Organizational Communication

1. Per reference (1), “Organizing is an attempt to bring order out of chaos or establish organizations, entities in which purposeful and ordered activity takes place…the process we call organizing is accomplished through human communication as individuals seek to bring order out of chaos and establish entities for purposeful activities.” Communication is central to organizing.

2. Aside from individual communication competencies, which have their own unique challenges and solutions, organizational communication presents yet more unique difficulties. Organizational communication, per reference (1), is the “process through which organizations are created and in turn create and shape events. The process can be understood as a combination of process, people, messages, meaning, and purpose.” The Marine Corps is an organization devoted to the art of warfare; we are an organization which seeks to impose order on a naturally chaotic state (war) – as such, efficient and effective organizational communication is paramount to success.

3. Per reference (1), organizational communication as a process involves “creating and transmitting organizational messages [which] reflect the shared realities resulting from previous message exchanges,” a process which “evolves to generate new realities that create and shape events.” In other words, organizational communication strives to create common meanings and purposes – the Marine Corps already has established guidelines in this regard (initial training, the Core Values, ethical guidelines) but beyond initial training the degree to which they are maintained is variable.

4. Per reference (1), organizational communication involves individuals: “Individuals bring to organizations sets of characteristics that influence how information is processed…it is fair to say that organizational communication occurs across networks of people who seek to obtain a variety of objectives requiring communication interactions.” Per reference (2), “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” and a weak communicator contributes to weakened communications up and down the chain of command.

5. Per reference (1), organizational communication depends upon “the movement or transmission of verbal and nonverbal behaviors and the sharing of information throughout the organization….Concern is expressed for message fidelity, or the extent to which messages are similar or accurate at all links through the channels.” This concept is not foreign to the Marine Corps; ethical guidelines (especially the second reference) mention the importance of such fidelity.

6. Per reference (1), organizational communication requires meaning: “Organizational communication is the symbolic behavior of individuals and organizations that, when interpreted, affects all organizational activities.” Furthermore, organizational communication has a unique purpose: “[it] seeks to reduce environmental uncertainty. It is people, messages, and meanings. It is intentional and unintentional messages explaining the workings of the organization. It is the process through which individuals attempt goal-oriented behavior in dealing with their environments.”

C. Functional Problems & Org. Communication

1. All organizations face similar problems with organizational communication, so before analyzing the Marine Corps (or any specific sub-organizations, such as 3D Maintenance Battalion, within the Marine Corps) it is instructive to analyze organizational communication problems in general. Such problems may be similar in character if not exactly in detail.

2. Open communication systems thrive in comparison to closed communication systems. Per reference (1), open systems are “organizations that continually take in new information, transform that information, and give information back…” while closed systems are “organizations that lack input communication, making it difficult to make good decisions and stay current with the needs of the environment.” Furthermore, “without appropriate change, organizational systems stagnate and die.”

3. Communication channels, per reference (1), are “the means for the transmission of messages. Common means are face-to-face interaction, group meetings, memos, letters, computer-mediated exchanges, web sites, presentations, and teleconferencing.” Proper selection and utilization of various channels – as well as the creation of new channels which “speed information transfer and shorten decision-making response time,” are organizational priorities.

4. Messages in an organization can move in one of three directions – upward, downward, or horizontally. It should be noted, per reference (1), that “information flow cannot always be described in terms of specific direction,” because “informal network flow such as the grapevine…may move both vertically and horizontally, all within the transmission of one message.” In strict hierarchical structures like the military, a systemic bias for downward communication is present, while upward communication is notoriously difficult and unreliable. This is discussed in more detail below.

5. Communication load is an important consideration. Communication load, per reference (1), is “the volume, rate, and complexity of messages processed by an individual or the organization as a whole.” Furthermore, there can be three load conditions: specifically, optimal load, underload (wherein individuals are relegated to performing mundane tasks due to lack of new information input) and overload (where the load has exceeded system or individual capacity). One danger of ever expanding communications technologies is that we, as a society, may be fast approaching a situation of “permanent overload in many jobs, a situation that actually impairs rather than strengthens the decision making process.”

6. A final important general consideration is that of message distortion. Distortion is, per reference (1), “anything that contributes to alterations in meanings as messages move through the organization.” Distortions can occur for a variety of reasons, due to “load, message direction, channel usage, and the very composition of the [communication] networks themselves.” Furthermore, “organizational communication is characterized by the serial transmission of messages,” whereby a message is created from a source of authority and passes to a subordinate, who then undergoes a role transition and acts an authority to pass the message on to yet another subordinate, and so on down the chain of command. “Research consistently finds that original messages change or are distorted in the serial transmission process.” Language is a contributing factor to distortion, as “definitions of terms and concepts vary throughout the organization.” It is no exaggeration to say that distortion is inevitable and unavoidable.

7. Other functional problems exist with organizational communication, but have been left undisclosed in the interest of brevity. Should it be required, additional documentation shall be provided on other functional problems. For example, message function and structure; the role of organizing, relationship and change functions for messages; and the movement of messages through formal and informal networks are some of the topics that could be considered.

D. Meaning-Centered Problems & Org. Communication

1. A meaning-centered approach to communication, in contrast with a functional approach, per reference (1) “describes organizational communication as the process for generated shared realities that become organizing, decision making, sense-making, influence, and culture.” These concepts tie directly into Marine Corps priorities of developing a warrior ethos and abiding by the core values, per references (2) and (3). As such, these concepts warrant consideration.

2. Per reference (1), key assumptions of a meaning-centered approach to understanding organizational communication include the following premises: “Organizational cultures and subcultures reflect the shared realities in the organization and how these realities create and shape organizational events,” and “Communication climate is the subjective, evaluative reaction of organization members to the organization’s communication events, their reaction to organizational culture.” In other words, Marine Corps culture (“esprit de corps”) reflects the shared realities of the Marines in the Corps, and these realities create and shape events (be it by successfully maintaining gear, or winning wars). Furthermore, communication climate (or “command climate”) is the sum reaction of many Marines’ subjective response to command communications, which has an impact on Marine Corps culture (or “esprit de corps”).

3. Organizing can be understood as an attempt at reducing ambiguity by promoting reliable meanings. Per reference (1), “organizational members use rules and communication cycles to continually process…equivocal messages or messages susceptible to varying interpretations…. The main goal of the process of organizing is an attempt to reduce equivocality – ambiguity – in order to predict future responses to organizational behaviors.” Examples of this in the Marine Corps range from desktops and turnovers in the maintenance community to aid in job training and performance to rules regarding proper posture when speaking with seniors (parade rest and the position of attention). Furthermore, performance evaluations (such as proficiency and conduct ratings) can be understood as attempts to reduce ambiguity about job performance, per reference (1): “Supervisors reduce equivocality for their employees by the organizing of work assignments and the communication of task requirements… The supervisor understands what the employee believed the assignment to be by evaluating what was accomplished. The feedback to the employee (often in the form of rewards or punishment) reduces uncertainty about the adequacy of performance.”

4. Influence (as defined in reference (1): “organizational and individual attempts to persuade; frequently seen in organizational identification, socialization, communication rules, and power”) is a powerful tool to achieve organizational goals. Per reference (1), “who and what are viewed as influential, the way people seek to influence others, and how people respond to influence all contribute to organizing and decision making.” People “are more likely to be receptive to influence attempts in organizations with which [they] identify or have a sense of “we” or belonging.” In other words, Marines are more likely to respond to influence by the Marine Corps if the Marines identify more solidly with the Marine Corps. Identification is defined in reference (1) as the “dynamic social process by which identities are constructed; indicates perceptions of a sense of belonging. Usually associated with the belief that individual and organizational goals are compatible.”

5. Organizations tend to encourage identification through socialization; per reference (1), there are three major stages of socialization: anticipatory socialization, encounter socialization, and metamorphosis socialization. These will be analyzed in turn.

6. Anticipatory socialization, per reference (1), “begins before individuals enter organizations and results from past work experiences and interactions with family, friends, and institutions such as schools, churches, or social organizations.” Indeed, as reference (3) acknowledges, all Marines come from humble origins: “Our ethos has been shaped by ordinary men and women — heroes who showed extraordinary leadership and courage, both physical and moral, as they shaped the special character that is the essence of our Corps. They are heroes and leaders who are remembered not by their names, or rank, or because they received a decoration for valor. They are remembered because they were Marines.” Becoming a Marine begins before entering the Marine Corps, when the would-be Marine begins to consider the idea, talks with recruiters, and reads or otherwise thinks about being a Marine; this is anticipatory socialization.

7. Encounter socialization, per reference (1), “involves new employee training, supervisor coaching, peer groups, and formal organizational documents.” In other words, this is the training stage of a Marine’s career. The Marine Corps has an excellent training program, as per reference (3): “Marines undergo a personal transformation at recruit training. There, they receive more than just superb training; they are ingrained with a sense of service, honor, and discipline. It is there, as a former recruit depot Commanding General said, that Marines develop a sense of brotherhood, interdependence, and determination to triumph.”

8. Metamorphosis socialization, per reference (1), “occurs when the newcomer begins to master basic organizational requirements and adjust to the organization.” Personal speculation as well as anecdotal evidence suggests that metamorphosis socialization may be a problem in the Marine Corps; [The CO of ELMACO] has mused, for instance, why it seems to be that Marines lose their motivation between initial training and their first duty station.

9. Other meaning-centered problems exist with organizational communication, but have been left undisclosed in the interest of brevity. Should it be required, additional documentation shall be provided on other meaning-centered problems. For example, power, communication as culture, and further analysis of communication climate are some of the topics that could be considered.

E. Supervisor/Subordinate Relations, Peers, & Motivation

1. Per reference (1), “an individual’s relationship with his or her supervisor is one of the most important of the primary communication experiences in organizational life. It is so important, in fact, that the quality of this relationship usually determines how the individual identifies with the organization as well as the individual’s job and organizational satisfaction. Communication experiences with supervisors and peers are so influential that they contribute to the quality and quantity of an individual’s work.” In other words, an individual Marine’s ability to identify with the Marine Corps and live the core values is directly impacted by their relationship with their superiors; additionally, the quality of that Marine’s work is also impacted.

2. Per reference (1), “individuals who are satisfied with organizational communication experiences are more likely to be effective performers and to be satisfied with their jobs than those who have less positive communication relationships.” Reference (3) has another way of stating the same phenomenon: “…leaders must have the respect of their followers. If followers do not believe their leader is operating from a foundation of values, then words become hollow and lack credibility and the leader will be ineffective.”

3. Motivating subordinates (or, Marines) is a notoriously complex subject, but it generally falls to the supervisor to motivate the subordinate in any organization. One theory of motivation worth mentioning is the rewards theory, first professed by B.F. Skinner. Per reference (1), rewards are defined as “positive feedback or tangible reinforcements for organizational behaviors,” or more simply, rewarding Marines for being good Marines. It is worth mentioning that Frederick Herzberg proposes that satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not polar opposites; per reference (1), “what produces dissatisfaction in the work environment, if corrected, will not necessarily produce satisfaction or motivation.”

4. Gerald Salanick and Jeffrey Pfeffer have a theory of motivation that, per reference (1), “suggest[s] three basic determinates of attitudes or needs: (1) the individual’s perception of the job or task characteristics, (2) information the social environment provides to the individual about what attitudes are appropriate…and (3) the individual’s perception of the reasons for his or her past behaviors.” Moreover, “Salanick and Pfeffer identify four ways in which social information influences attitudes: (1) overt, evaluative statements of coworkers directly shape individual worker attitudes; (2) frequent talk among coworkers about certain dimensions of the job and work environment focus attention on what is considered to be important or salient in the work setting; (3) information from coworkers, or social information, helps an individual worker interpret and assign meaning to environmental cues and events in the work setting; and finally, (4) social information influences the way an individual interprets his or her own needs. Thus…job attitudes are a result of social information in the work setting coupled with the consequences of past individual choices.” In other words, the way Marines treat one another and talk to one another may have untold impacts on how that Marine perceives either his or herself, his or her unit and his or her Corps.

5. Other supervisor/subordinate and motivation related problems exist with organizational communication, but have been left undisclosed in the interest of brevity. Should it be required, additional documentation shall be provided on other meaning-centered problems. For example, the pervasive nature of supervisor/subordinate relationships, the amount of time spent communicating between supervisors and subordinates, and gaps in the expectations between supervisors and subordinates are some of the topics that could be considered.

F. Communication Apprehension and Upward Distortion

1. The Marine Corps recognizes the importance of upward organizational communication, as per reference (3): “Subordinates should use the chain of command, but ideas must rise to the top.” Moreover, “leaders should make it their duty to bring subordinates’ ideas and criticisms to the surface where all may analyze and evaluate them.” Yet problems with reliable, timely, and accurate upward communication exist in all organizations. Generally, these problems may have their root in the phenomenon known as communication apprehension.

2. Per reference (1), communication apprehension (or CA) is defined as “the predisposition for behavior described as an individual’s level of fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with others.” Moreover, “CA has been found to be meaningfully associated with such important organizational outcomes as occupation choice, perception of competence, job satisfaction, advancement, and job retention.” As such, CA merits further consideration.

3. Per reference (1), “Marilyn Hunt (1992) found that individuals reporting high-quality relationships with their supervisors were more likely to…conform to formal and informal requests, to attempt to clarify expectations, and to accept criticism from supervisors than were individuals reporting lower-quality relationships.” In other words, positive working relationships reduce CA and, furthermore, positively benefit Marines and the Marine Corps.

4. In contrast to paragraph 3, and per reference (1), negative working relationships have negative impacts: “…perceptions [of supervisors] influenced how much employees reported sharing information, ideas, and resources with work group peers. In other words, the less favorable the relationship with the supervisor, the more likely individuals were to withhold information even from peers.” CA can distort not only upward communication, but also horizontal communication, with important implications for mission accomplishment. If, for example, a Marine discovers a superior method for getting the job done, but due to communication apprehension resulting from negative working relationships refuses to share it with fellow Marines, the Marine Corps fails to benefit from this innovation and initiative.

5. Per reference (1), “Paul Krivonos (1982) summarized many of the findings about upward communication in the following four categories: (1) subordinates tend to distort upward information, saying what they think will please their supervisors; (2) subordinates tend to filter information and tell their supervisors what they, the subordinates, want them to know; (3) subordinates often tell supervisors what they think the supervisors want to hear; and (4) subordinates tend to pass personally favorable information to supervisors while not transmitting information that reflects negatively on themselves.” Moreover, “Janet Fulk and Sirish Mani (1986) suggested that the perception of supervisors’ downward communication, or the extent to which supervisors are perceived as actively withholding information, influences the accuracy of upward messages. The more the supervisor withholds, the more employees withhold and distort.” In a chain as lengthy and complex as the Marine Corps’ chain of command, nearly infinite opportunities for distortion and withholding exist.

6. Per reference (1), “when a positivity bias distorts upward communication, supervisors may not receive timely information about problems. Thus, needed information about innovation and change may be slow in coming, particularly if the supervisor is perceived as resistant to new ideas.” In other words, ineffective upward communication limits the effectiveness of higher-level decision making.

7. Biased upward communication may lead to abuses of power. Per reference (1), “the supervisor has the formal authority of the chain of command. The supervisor controls information flow and performance evaluation. Employees control technical performance and have vital firsthand information about the progress of work. Both are dependent on each other; the supervisor directs, but without compliance and performance, no work is accomplished. If the supervisor becomes abusive in directing the work, an employee group may seek alternatives by withdrawing from interaction with the supervisor or withholding information the supervisor needs to make good decisions. At an extreme the employee group may complain to others in management, transfer to other departments, or leave the organization.” In an organization like the Marine Corps, where the option to easily transfer to “other departments” or leave the organization do not feasibly exist, abuse of power may contribute to rising suicide rates as Marines feel suicide is their “only way out.”

8. Other communication apprehension and upward distortion related problems exist with organizational communication, but have been left undisclosed in the interest of brevity. Should it be required, additional documentation shall be provided on other CA and distortion problems. For example, the biasing effect of peer groups, romantic relationships and interpersonal relationships within an organization are some of the topics that could be considered.

G. Immediate Solution; Benefits and Risks

1. Given the problems discussed above and the background premises introduced, innovation is required. As such, it is my recommendation that ELMACO immediately create a “Communications NCO” billet; a dedicated “communications expert” to mitigate identified problems.

2. Figure 1 provides a basic outline of how the ELMACO Communications NCO would “fit-in” with the current chain of command. In a sense, it can be said the chain of command is completed by the addition of this billet. Whereas the chain of command has always provided relatively effective downward communication, as established elsewhere in this paper, it has had difficulty establishing equally effective upward communication. By providing a means for reliable upward communication, the Communications NCO billet “completes” the chain of command. Furthermore, the billet may help bolster downward communication by providing another effective channel for commanders to utilize.

3. The Communications NCO would be focused upon neutral, unbiased reporting of command-identified valuable information in a timely, reliable manner. As such, the Communications NCO would not be held accountable for positive or negative reports, but rather, the emphasis would be placed upon accurate reports. The Communication NCO would be held accountable for failure to maintain integrity in reporting the facts and for knowingly biasing communications.

4. The new billet provides several potential benefits, which will be named in this paragraph and discussed more in-depth in following paragraphs. In no particular order, the billet would provide a means to frequently and accurate gauge command climate; to reinforce Core Values, ethics, reliable communications, and training efforts towards these ends; to provide information to higher commands in a rapid manner; and to prove proof of concept for future development of Marine Corps communication structures.

5. The Communications NCO billet could establish a variety of procedures and methods for assessing command climate in a frequent and reliable manner, for example, through anonymous surveys. Because the Communications NCO would be evaluated for reporting accurate information as opposed to positive or negative information, communication apprehension when reporting information up the chain would be significantly reduced. Such a billet could potentially provide commanders with an immediate, reliable pulse on morale and welfare, with benefits for decision making impacting all levels. Moreover, the Communications NCO would be able to assist in increasing motivation while simultaneously providing commanders an increased ability to recognize and reward outstanding achievement.

6. The Communications NCO billet could assist in buffeting efforts to maintain high standards of ethical conduct and training. Additionally, such a billet stands to mitigate problems with metamorphosis socialization as described in section D paragraphs 5 & 8 by assisting the command in creating messages aimed at increasing identification with the Marine Corps and the unit as discussed in section D paragraph 4.

7. Per reference (1), “the greater the degree of socialization, the more likely individuals will respond favorably to organizational persuasion. In fact, little doubt remains that socialization relates to organizational commitment, decision making, perceptions of communications climate, and overall job satisfaction.” A commitment to improve metamorphosis socialization (in other words, emphasis on ethics and core values training) beyond initial training in a Marine’s career may yield positive benefits in the form of retention increases, better leaders, more productive command climates, and a more motivated cadre of Marines.

8. The Communications NCO billet could furthermore foster increased awareness of the importance of communication competency in daily tasks, and, moreover, provide relevant training aids to the command in order to raise aforementioned competencies. It may be unrealistic to expect all Marines to be communications expert, yet the benefits of having dedicated communication experts (such as the Communications NCO) are potentially incalculable through a variety of metrics, including money, time, and lives.

9. While the Communications NCO would more or less report directly to his or her respective Commanding Officer, he or she would still be available to higher commanders as the situation necessitated. If, for whatever reason, the Battalion Commander required immediate information about the welfare of a particular company, the Battalion Commander could leverage the assets of the local company’s Communications NCO rather than wait for the information to sift up the chain through other means. This model makes the Communications NCO the “eyes and ears” for higher commands, and the “mouth” for lower commands, in a manner of speaking. Such a model is likely to reduce surprises to commanders of all levels, in addition to helping ensure unity of Commander’s Intent at all times.

10. Specifically, the ELMACO Communications NCO billet, if successful, could provide proof of concept for the theoretical model outlined in this paper. If effective, Communications NCOs could be trained at other companies in the Battalion, and a Battalion Communications NCO could be created (see figure 2). Extremely long-range implications include exporting the model further and potentially creating a new MOS dedicated to ensuring effective communications at any command.

11. The Communications NCO has the potential to benefit in other regards as well. In short, the billet has the potential to positively impact the command, the mission, morale, retention, and is in keeping with the Marine Corps’ expeditionary model by fostering more rapid communications at all levels of command.

12. The immediate risk for employing such a billet is minimal. Initially, it would require reassigning only one qualified Marine to get the program up and running. I nominate myself for this duty. I believe I have demonstrated sufficient integrity, motivation, Honor, Courage and Commitment to tackle this task. I can’t guarantee perfection but I have every reason to be confident I will deliver results. Per reference (3), “Leaders must allow subordinates the opportunity to show initiative…. Because innovation is imprecise and because subordinates, especially junior ones, will make mistakes, protect them. “Zero defects” are not a standard of measurement. They do not encourage initiative; they stifle it.”

H. Conclusions

1. This document was intended to be comprehensive yet brief. Much of what has been written here could be expanded upon. In any event, organizational communication represents a challenge not just for the Marine Corps, but for any modern organization.

2. Unusual problems often require unusual solutions. With low risk and high potential reward, such a plan seems to promise great benefits for little investment.

3. I can provide further documentation, analysis, and correspondence as required.

I. References

(1) Shockley-Zalabak, Pamela S. Fundamentals of Organizational Communication, Seventh Edition. 2009, Pearson Education, Inc.

(2) MCRP 6-11B W/CH 11 Marine Corps Values: A User’s Guide for Discussion Leaders

(3) MCWP 6-11 Leading Marines

[“J. Durden”]