If you’re looking for a solid blueprint for changing your organization’s culture, you could spend a year or more studying all the books and articles on the subject—or just a few hours reading the U.S. Defense Department’s 87-page support plan for repealing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which banned gays from serving openly in the U.S. military.
President Barack Obama signed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal legislation into law Dec. 22, prohibiting discrimination and harassment of gays and lesbians in all branches of the U.S. military. However, it is the little-noticed support plan—released as a supplement to the Report of the Comprehensive Review of the Issues Associated with a Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will determine how successfully the cultural and policy changes will be implemented throughout the U.S. Armed Forces.
In perhaps the first crucial test of how it handles sexually offensive and homophobic material since the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal, the U.S. Navy removed Capt. Owen Honors from his command after the release of raunchy videos full of sexual innuendo and anti-gay remarks created a public firestorm. Honors may not have violated the law by producing, broadcasting and acting in sexually explicit and demeaning videos shown to 6,000 sailors under his command, but his actions conflicted with current command standards of professionalism and respect.
Regardless of whether you support, oppose or hold a neutral position on the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, leaders in any business can use the military’s support plan as a model for implementing virtually any cultural change in their organizations—provided they back their plans with the strong will and leadership to make their initiatives successful.
To be effective, the support plan must reverse entrenched practices that prevented homosexuals from serving openly in the military, while countering deeply held objections, attitudes and resistance to the policy change stemming from personal, religious and cultural beliefs.
Ultimately, the new policy will completely change how gay people will be treated during their military service and interactions with others. This change will occur not only in a large, geographically dispersed workplace, but also on the battlefield where team members must work cohesively to survive day to day.
While this short document is better read than summarized, here are key points that can be applied in any organization seeking to change its culture and long-standing workplace practices:
• Preparation is critical. Before Congress passed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal legislation, the Defense Department polled more than 400,000 members of the armed forces to gather information about experiences individuals had with gays who have served in the military and identified personal fears that many had about what the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would mean in their daily service lives. The study realistically considered how repeal would affect military effectiveness, anticipated issues that would have to be addressed and set the stage for a continual process of cultural change embedded into military operations. The result is not a short-term training plan but a long-term vision of how to change military culture.
• Value-based messages are tied to organizational success and guiding principles. The initiative’s effectiveness is linked to leadership, professionalism and respect, key values of the military. The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal plan, integrates the process into the military’s continuing commitment at all levels to improve military operations and effectiveness.
• Leadership roles are clearly defined. The initiative starts with senior-level commitment and defines unique as well as shared responsibilities for leaders and everyone in the military. By making Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s repeal the responsibility of all leaders, not just those in equal employment opportunities, diversity or personnel roles, the military is ensuring that it will be regarded as a professional imperative, not an initiative to be handed off to staff for window dressing.
• Results are the focus, not just procedures and process. The Defense Department clearly defines changing behaviors as the ultimate measure of success, not setting up processes and delivering training. Many organizational initiatives fail because they focus on systems and steps that can be rapidly checked off and documented, rather than daily conduct, actions and responsibilities. The recommendations get into such questions about whether there should be separate facilities for lodging and showering for gay people. The answer is no, eliminating the ambiguity that can be a major barrier to daily behavioral change.
• Changing behaviors—not attitudes—is the objective. The initiative addresses behavior and minces no words in saying it is not trying to change attitudes. It’s an extension of core military principles that service members may personally disagree with a mission but their responsibility is to achieve mission objectives.
• Conceptual resistance and operational challenges are anticipated and addressed. Military leaders recognize that change will encounter some conceptual resistance. The plan anticipates potential issues and gives leaders a variety of tools to address such opposition—from linking the policy change to any mission assignment or order that must be followed regardless of personal agreement, to explaining how standards of behavior are to be uniformly enforced. The fact that everyone shares a responsibility for effective implementation is important but is often overlooked in cultural change initiatives. Moreover, the support plan avoids jargon and unending processes, which can result in confusion and ineffectiveness.
• Leaders are held accountable for results at all levels. Leaders are responsible for the behavioral changes and effective implementation of the initiative—as with any other mission assignment.
• The plan is integrated with ongoing commitments. The overall vision of this initiative is that everyone—regardless of race, religion, age, national origin, ethnicity or sexual orientation—should be treated professionally.
In short, this no-nonsense, results-oriented implementation plan focuses on achieving strategic and tactical objectives, much like any other military action plan. Leaders who want to change their organizations’ cultures—from ensuring ethical behavior to creating an inclusive workplace and welcoming concerns to creating a positive workplace environment—should look to the Defense Department’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell support plan as a blueprint for their own initiatives.
Stephen Paskoff is president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI Inc., a provider of ethics and compliance learning solutions. He can be contacted at www.eliinc.com.