Erosion of Mission Command in Barracks

Contributor: Nick has 12 years of infantry leadership experience.  He has worked at Company, Battlegroup and Divisional level, and deployed on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Within the British Army’s current doctrine, it describes how Mission Command requires the development of trust and mutual understanding between commanders and subordinates.[1]  The British Army is arguably good at Mission Command in the field but is less so within barracks.  Throughout many senior officers’ directives to subordinates, you will find the idea of ‘employing Mission Command’ in barracks.  The incentive being that if you get it right in barracks then it will become instinctive when it is needed in combat.  The reality, however, does not match the written intent.  It is the experience of the author that Mission Command in the home base is now more elusive than ever.

In recent years, the British Army has moved to use tracking systems inside white fleet vehicles.  This ensures that you drive safely and obey speed limits; however, it also keeps track of the exact location of the vehicle.  Soldiers are having to justify why they deviated from their destination and stopped at a supermarket or some other innocuous location.  It is understandable to use the tracking systems to improve driver safety but micro-managing soldiers’ location is a misuse.  This shows a lack of trust between those using a vehicle and the Chain of Command.  A more sensible approach would allow the Vehicle Commander the discretion to stop where he deemed suitable depending on the circumstances.  If there was a breach of trust then it would be appropriate to scrutinise individuals more heavily but up until that time there should be freedom of action.  Here is another example…

Time spent away from barracks on official business allows a soldier to claim for subsistence.  On return to camp, the Administrative Office may require you justify the expenditure.[2]  Many civilian firms take an opposite approach; they give you the money before you go and let you decide how to spend it.[3]  Maybe the British Army should trust soldiers and allow freedom of action when it comes to these sorts of decisions.  Perhaps if they explained the importance of these measures (mutual understanding) then we might be more considerate and feel less constrained by a seemingly punitive system.

More broadly, there is an upward trend to use Management Information Systems (MIS) to collect data, monitor and assure work-strands within the British Army.[4]  The proliferation of MIS feels like modern day Taylorism.[5]  Taylor could be insulting about some of his workforce and often did not trust them to deliver the task effectively.  Taylorism advocated higher levels of managerial control and increased automation.  Inputting of data into a MIS is comparable; the worker feels little value inputting data and often feels overly managed by the control/assurance exercised at a higher level.  An alternative approach would be to employ Mission Command.  Seniors should state their intent, describe an end-state, set a main effort and allow subordinates the freedom of action to manage the allocated resources to achieve a result.  This would take a mind-set change as the Chain of Command may feel they need a MIS to provide evidence.  Perhaps qualitative assurance and assessment from an empowered commander may build trust and prove that the MIS makes no difference to the outcome.

These are just a few examples of where trust and subsequently Mission Command is eroding in barracks.  The reason these processes and behaviours have come into being is in the past someone exploited or circumvented the system.  The natural reaction of any bureaucracy is to tighten the process so these ‘glitches’ cannot occur again.  Although this may reduce the amount of exploitation, it does nothing to encourage Mission Command.

So what is the answer?  The ‘blue pill’ approach would see more process or MIS.  A ‘red pill’ approach advocates more freedom where soldiers are trusted to make the right decisions.  Exploitation could still occur and these individuals should be held to account but the starting point for everyone else must be trust in their ability to ‘do the right thing’.  The resultant benefit will not only support Mission Command on operations but will also lead to greater job satisfaction.

[1] Army Doctrine Publication – Land Operations, October 2017.  The principles of British Mission Command include unity of effort; freedom of action; trust; mutual understanding; timely and effective decision making.

[2] Spending limits; restrictions on when you can claim; no alcoholic drinks etc.

[3] The Administrative Office may allow a cash advance up to 80% of the expected costs.

[4] JPA, ODR, FISS, PAPMIS, WISMIS, JAMES, CHURCHILL etc.

[5] Taylorism or Scientific Management analyses and synthesizes workflows to improve efficiency of labour.

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The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to hi@wavellroom.com

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