Communicate the Big Picture

Among the armed services, the Navy is uniquely bad at communicating to the lower ranks. As long as they keep the turbines spinning and the inspectors happy, our ships will get underway. This is a deep-seated cultural phenomenon, which stems from an environment where the NCOs and Junior Officers are almost never greater than 500 feet from their Commanding Officer. In traditional Navy command structures the CO is the “trigger puller;” decisions of tactical significance are almost never made below his level.  When they are, the CO is almost always close by to intervene if necessary. While the Navy is certainly much larger than the warship communities, and each specialty has developed its own distinctive subculture, the greater Navy culture is much older than any of them and it pervades the entire service.

guam strategyComplicating the matter is that relative to our sister services, the Navy’s greater role in the world is exceedingly complex and theoretical. Naval forces are a powerful instrument of diplomacy, and are used every day to influence events and exert national will—it’s all about capability. Reliable presence, intelligence operations, international exercises, overseas infrastructure—all of these are forms of communication. The finer points of deterrence theory and Realpolitik are tough for even the scholars to nail down, though, so we don’t even bother trying to bring that stuff to the deckplates. What ends up trickling down to the sailors is usually a dumbed-down, propagandist sound byte.

This is where you come in. Your perspective is limited as well, but through your contact with the CO and access to planning meetings and message traffic you’ll necessarily have a broader perspective on what the ship is doing than your guys will. You are the primary conduit of that information, and you can fight the Navy’s communication woes at your own level by refusing to throttle or filter the message based on what you think your guys need to know. Provided they are appropriately cleared, tell them everything you know as soon as you know it.

This accomplishes several things. The classic purpose (which is very familiar to our land-based brethren) is that it breeds initiative—informed sailors are both more able and more willing to act of their own volition in the best interest of the command. It is empowering, and encourages maturity and professionalism. It can be the deciding factor in job satisfaction. Most importantly it is courteous, and communicates to your people that they are respected and valued.

Don’t insult them by dumbing it down. There may be some who don’t understand, but I think we’re always better off communicating at a level that’s too high than too low. Every negative assumption you make about a shipmate’s intelligence is a provocation for humbling. I had a mechanic who avidly read Dostoyevsky, and a cook who was an expert in stock market investing. They could understand anything I could, and didn’t need me to translate it, just to tell them what I knew. When your intelligence is underestimated on a daily basis it’s very refreshing to be addressed like an adult.

Your role here is to inform, not to persuade

Also, don’t sell to them. Your role here is to inform, not to persuade—let them make their own judgments. All sailors develop finely-tuned bullshit detectors, and they ramp up to maximum sensitivity every time an officer speaks. If you bring them propaganda, they’ll dismiss you like propaganda, and your credibility with them will suffer permanently.

Finally, be humble. Don’t turn this into some kind of power game or means of self-aggrandizement. Remember that your information comes from your access, not your superior intelligence or education. Acknowledge this, and when you don’t know something say so.

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One thought on “Communicate the Big Picture

  1. “All sailors develop finely-tuned bullshit detectors, and they ramp up to maximum sensitivity every time an officer speaks”

    By far my favorite line.

    If you’re not regularly talking with your Sailors, you are wrong. Period. Even as a Department Head, I push out an email weekly with almost everything that was said at the Department Head meeting (barring privacy info and personal discussions). In my 1500 Sailor command, and particularly in my 168 person department, I can’t afford to have any Sailor uninformed, and I have been amazed at how even some of the most insignificant points have proven useful.

    Case in point: about two weeks ago, we had a cold snap, and N4 put out that there were no reported barracks problems. It was a single line in my regular department head email, and one of the chiefs on the staff (one that was two levels down) wrote back saying he had a Sailor who lost heat. Come to find out, the reporting system for barracks trouble tickets wasn’t functioning correctly. N4 jumped on it and fixed it. We might have gone another few weeks without catching it had my chief not been informed enough to realize the break in communication and act to fix it.

    Overcommunicate everything, big and small. You won’t be disappointed with the results.

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