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Customs, courtesy reminders in the Information Age

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Have you ever told your supervisor that you challenge his or her integrity and refuse to comply when they give you a direct order? How about skipping echelon management when you hit a brick wall -- you immediately escalate the issue four rungs up the chain?
Neither example is acceptable. Both circumvent time-proven established business relationships of authority and responsibility. Short-circuiting the chain of command or espousing insubordination slows the processes in place that keep the military machine running; essentially making mid-level or first line supervisor's positions of authority invalid.

Customer service has a new name in this day and age and it isn't a courteous smile or going the extra mile with pride when accomplishing your job. Customer service in the digital age is synonymous with "instant gratification." The efficiency tool of the '90s has become the crutch of the ineffectual staffer and the uninformed in the 21st century.
"I have an open door" is a phrase often touted by various levels of leadership -- the phrase is meant to be inviting to the unit and to instill a sense of identity with whatever issues you may need to discuss. As inviting as this may seem, it is also a tool that should not be abused. A surgeon would not replace the scalpel with a chainsaw as his instrument of choice in the operating room, neither should an Airman or civilian circumvent the chain of command.

I was always taught to work issues at the lowest level. Don't get me wrong, I can be tenacious and will steamroll through bureaucracy, cut red tape, and motivate laziness to accomplish a goal, but there is an art and a reason why you work with due diligence through the chain of command. In working at a lateral level with your peers you gain insight into their particular processes, challenges and limitations. That knowledge goes a long way. In challenging issues you often can come to resolution working within the system, improving it for the next instance rather than bullying your way in and setting an unnecessary precedent. In the process you are more likely to team with your fellow Airmen and learn to lean on each other so that in times of crisis the "machine" operates as designed and exceeds expectations.

Enter the digital age -- e-mail. A once powerful tool with unlimited potential to make the most convoluted information trail a snap, has in effect burdened the command authority. Think about the number of e-mail trails you have had to re-read to get to the heart of an issue; think of the half-truths, misleading statements and intentional or unintentional emotional message between the lines that have spurned so much action when a simple eyeball-to-eyeball or phone call could have cut to the heart of the matter and rendered a decision, saving valuable time, effort and energy. Now factor in that wireless communication devices and network access from home or temporary duty shortens the timeline on coordinated communication.

This would be a revolution in military affairs if it were not for the fog of war that settles around every e-mail that comes across our accounts on a daily basis. If volume alone were not enough, the inappropriateness of members of the chain of command that are "cc'd" on innocuous "conversations" allowing them to weigh in put an inappropriate and absolutely wasteful burden on leadership at all levels that expect such mundane conversations to be worked to their fullest extent before crossing their desk, now have to start an issue from the beginning. This is neither efficient nor desirable. In the front of this paper is the Wing Commander's action line, and in the description (in essence an "open door policy" it specifically states that bringing issues into that forum are inappropriate if you don't give the chain of command a chance to resolve an issue.

Here are simple principles to keep in mind that could "right" some of the most common "wrongs" that I see people engaging in with respect to inappropriate e-mail communication:
  • Call first, get the issue or answer from the source and apply the personal touch.
  • If personal contact is not possible think of an e-mail as a memo for record, bullet background paper, or efficient answering machine message containing enough information for a quick answer, accurately redirect or provide enough contact information for the receiver to get back to you.
  • Keep your e-mails short and succinct. The written word typically cannot convey the same message or intonation as an eyeball-to-eyeball conversations. 
  • Do your homework. Find out who is in the chain of command on an issue or if there is cross-organizational coordination requirement, proper staffing is probably the better option.
  • Stay Professional. Anything you write whether intentional or perceived attack both your own personally credibility and more often than not diverts attention from the real issue into the personal arena where the response may be fueled by emotion rather than sound judgment.
  • Stand by your work. Never write anything you wouldn't say in person, more often than not cyberspace provides the 90- pound weakling the opportunity to kick sand in the face of his peer or superior, this is an unacceptable professional practice and should be punished as severely as insubordination.
  • Use the tool properly. Just as a surgeon carefully selects his instrument, an Airman attempting to do an electronic staffing must be judicious in his or her actions. We are exponentially using bandwidth in direct competition with mission essential message trafficking. Clogging the information superhighway with frivolous matter slows both the war machine and rates right up there with downloading internet pornography. Both practices are distasteful, the former negligent the latter criminal.
  • Never engage in one upmanship. This in essence is using that inner voice we all are taught to squelch as a matter of professional courtesy in public. No good has ever come of letting the other guy have it in a text message. Feelings get hurt, issues misdirected, and those issues sent in confidentiality always make it into the public domain. 
Leadership is defined as "the art of influencing others to do your will." Negatively using e-mail to coerce action or short-circuit processes codified by AFIs is the antithesis of leadership and should not only not be tolerated, by not be engaged in as a matter of practice. Those e-mail chains are only as effective as the number of folks who "chime-in."