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LTC Danielle Holt and COL Susan Davis — “Interrupting Bias in Army Talent Management”

Released 4 April 2022.

This article addresses the impact of diversity, equity, and inclusion on talent management. It explains how systemic bias impairs the US Army’s ability to harness cognitive diversity. It stresses the value of cognitive diversity among teams and senior leadership and how cumulative bias impacts the entire career cycle of an individual. It concludes by offering practical suggestions to reduce bias in the assignment, promotion, and selection processes.

Click here to read the original article.

Episode Transcript:

 

Stephanie Crider (Host)

(Prerecorded Decisive Point intro) Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.

(Guest 1 Danielle Holt)

(Guest 2 Susan Davis)

(Host)

Decisive Point welcomes Lieutenant Colonel Danielle Holt, US Army, and Colonel Susan Davis, US Army, authors of “Interrupting Bias in Army Talent Management,” featured in Parameters’ Spring 2022 issue. Holt is a general surgeon assigned as deputy chief, Department of Surgery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Uniformed Services University. She’s a graduate of the US Army War College and holds a doctor of medicine degree from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Davis is a physical therapist assigned to the People First Task Force. She’s a graduate of the US Army War College and holds a doctor of physical therapy degree from Baylor University.

I’m happy you’re here, Sue and Danielle, welcome. Let’s talk about your article. In it, you say, “Army Talent Management must include development of a more innovative and inclusive culture to meet future threats.” There were some significant changes to the system in 2020, let’s start there. What changed?

 

(Davis)

Hi, this is Sue, and thanks for having us. Absolutely, I’d say 2019 and 2020 were huge changes in the Army, in the talent management arena, and it was very exciting. The Army is trying to keep up with contemporary practices and modernize the system, if you will, and they had been working for several years on many initiatives. And there were some big ones that were rolled out in 2019 and 2020.

Specifically, the ones that we talk about a little bit—and that are probably the most well-known as well—is, first, the Army talent alignment process—which really simply is a new way of determining where officers go for their next assignment. It essentially is a electronic platform that generates a market-style hiring system. Much like the civilian side, resumes are exchanged, interviews may occur, and you can exchange information, etcetera. And then, officers that are slated to move and units that may have an open position indicate their preferences, and they run an algorithm, and this then determines where an officer goes next. That was a very big change in the legacy system. It was more just a conversation with a career manager or—if you’re in the (Army Medical Department or) AMEDD—a consultant. And so, this was a big change. And so, we talk about it a little bit.

And the other one was the Command Assessment Program. And this was a new initiative to do a very thorough assessment of the candidates who are potentially going to be commanders at the O-5 and O-6 level. And instead of just reviewing their written record and evaluations and where they had been, they brought them in for four or five days of a battery of assessments and interviews and gathered much more information and data on them. So, we talk about these specifically, one, because they’re very impactful—they represented really big changes—but also because, like all personnel management processes, whether in the military or civilian, they can be vulnerable to unconscious bias creeping in if it’s not mitigated. So, since that was the topic of our paper, unconscious bias, we did take a closer look at those two.

 

(Host)

You also make the case for diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of this process. Will you please expand on that for our listeners?

 

(Holt)

Sure. Hi, this is Danielle, and I really appreciate this opportunity. Let me start by saying, you know, I’m not in—an (human resources or) HR professional, I’m actually a general surgeon. And I started this project back in 2020, during Army War College, to really get a better standing of the tensions that our country has currently been facing. And so, the case for diversity, equity, and inclusion ultimately lies in the Army as a values-based organization, and that . . . the fact that we work in teams. So, our servicemembers come from a variety of backgrounds. Really, as work has sort of moved from this Industrial Age to the information age, where we’re competing in this knowledge economy, not only has work changed, but our future threats have really blurred these lines between competition and conflict, and then also between, you know, the physical, informational—you know—and cognitive warfare.

And so, this means that our teams really need to rapidly assess these changing conditions. And kind of a key foundation to that is creating shared understanding. So, we have to take a diverse group of people, rapidly understand the situation, and then innovate to be able to meet these threats. On top of that, we are also competing for talent. So, we have to attract people to an all-volunteer force. We have to retain those individuals through their career life cycle. And, in addition, we’re competing with the private sector, so, particularly, in these technical fields. But we also have to maintain a technical and economic advantage over our near-peer adversaries.

And so, ultimately, innovation, I think, requires cognitive diversity to kind of tap into this collective knowledge of the team. And so, what I mean by that is each team member has different strengths and weaknesses and, ideally, we can sort of offset each other’s strengths and weaknesses. In more general terms, the literature kind of describes this as the idea that a team, made up of average performers—if all of the performers contribute—will often outperform teams where you have one top performer that’s driving the team. Really a go-to reference for me for this is the Diversity Bonus: (How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy) by Scott Page is a great book.

And so, really, the key for cognitive diversity—for that to work—you need an inclusive environment, you know, so all the team members can pitch in. And ultimately, I would argue this ability to sort of create an inclusive team, it’s probably one of the top competencies for Army leaders, you know, and really contributes to this process for diversity, equity, and inclusion within talent management.

 

(Host)

Your article talks a bit about unconscious bias. What is it, and how does it constrain cognitive diversity?

 

(Davis)

Unconscious bias is—it’s really the way you automatically feel about something: in favor or not in favor. It’s your very quick judgment or assessment of something, and, sometimes, it’s shaped by your emotional state or situational cues. But it’s the collective experience of your brain; everything you’ve been exposed to, the way you were raised, your culture. And your brain shapes your bias and that . . . that can have a little bit of a negative connotation. So, just a neutral way to explain it is System-1 and System-2 thinking in your brain.

System-1 is shortcuts, or it’s when your brain, again, uses all . . . everything it’s been exposed to and comes up with a heuristic. And System-2 is much more thoughtful, analytical, methodical. And, just to be clear, System-1 is not necessarily bad in many situations—it actually helps us get us through the day. So, if you go to a restaurant: “What should I order?” You know, you don’t need a decision matrix, you don’t need 20 minutes. It’s OK to just go with System-1 thinking. And it’s important to note our brain does these nice shortcuts for us unconsciously. So, for the most part, you are really unaware, except maybe retrospectively, and it’s very tempting to think that we can control it, but we really can’t. It’s just part of human nature and the way our brains work.

So, with human resource processes or personnel management processes where humans are involved, unconscious bias and that System-1 thinking is not helpful. And it actually can be quite detrimental, both to candidates being considered for various things, but it can be really detrimental to the organization if they’re trying to build a cognitively diverse force. So, bottom line is, if you don’t embed some processes to counter unconscious bias within personnel processes, then leaders are subject to this bias. And the most common one is, like, an affinity or familiarity bias, and you’re going to favor officers you know or that look like you or that you maybe went to the same school with. And then, ultimately, along the way, you end up having less cognitive diversity on the teams or in the senior level—where you really need it to be able to interpret and analyze and offer solutions quickly to the Army’s toughest challenges.

 

(Host)

Your article also mentions structural models for diversity, equity, and inclusion, including assignment distribution, evaluations, and psychological safety. Can you please give us a synopsis of your recommendations on this?

 

(Holt)

I would think of structural models as really just frameworks for how you approach this very complex, you know, challenging problem of diversity, equity, and inclusion. But I think, for me, it really boils down to insider and outsider group dynamics. In this paper, we focus primarily on the practical changes that can be made at the system level and focus on those changes in assignments, command selections, and evaluations. But also really highlighted some of the best practices that have already been implemented during this Army talent management transformation.

I really appreciate Brené Brown’s perspective on diversity, equity, and inclusion and say much of the challenge that surrounds this topic really stems from a sense of belonging and belonging to that insider group. You know, in the military, we would call that camaraderie, and I feel like this is really the essence of our organization. Belonging, you know, happens at multiple levels—but, really, it can be simplified down to the individual or interpersonal level and, then, at the group or organizational level.

And so, I would say at the individual level, belonging requires trust—trust between your teammates, trust with your leaders. And then, at the organizational level, you need to develop this sense of psychological safety. And so, those two components, at the individual and at the group or organizational level, allow us to get back to developing the shared understanding and mutual trust. And these are really the entire foundation for mission command, and this is really what drives our ability to meet our mission and to face our future threats. I think if we can generate a sense of belonging, then you can allow people to fully commit to this greater sense of service for something bigger than themselves. And I think it’s ultimately rooted in our Army ethic, and that’s what separates us from our adversaries.

We have to be careful as we implement this market-based approach that we don’t encounter some of the same problems that the private sector has had with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion. But I think, ultimately—I’ll close out by saying I think if we can create this sense of belonging, we can really foster this greater purpose. I think our doctrine is really some of the best and the most comprehensive guidebooks thought that’s out there on leadership. Our ethic is, essentially, codified in our country’s founding documents and these notions of freedom and liberty and justice, you know—it’s really what inspires people of all backgrounds to volunteer for our organization, you know, and, ultimately, self-sacrifice for our country.

Thank you again for, you know, allowing us to discuss our paper.

 

(Host)

It was a pleasure. I’m so glad you could join me. If you enjoyed this episode of Decisive Point and would like to hear more, look for us on Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and any other major podcast platform.