Some years back, I read a report out of the Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press that really impacted me and has lingered in my mind ever since. Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession, published in 2015 and written by Dr Leonard Wong and Dr Stephen Gerras, is a frank account of how members can become ethically numb, and, therefore, react dishonestly in the face of ever-growing and cumulative loads placed on the forces. These overwhelming workloads can include things like mandatory training, reporting requirements, data requests, compliance checks, personnel evaluation reporting, and the list can go on and on.
Although this report focused on the United States Army and gathered qualitative data from its members, I suggest that my Canadian colleagues reflect on the points presented in this blog article, and then perhaps read the full report, to see if any of these points are relatable in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) context. If so, what should/could be done about a culture of dishonesty?
Truth as an Important Aspect of our CAF Ethos
Military professionals will most often consider themselves to be truthful and honest. Our military ethos calls for it. In the summary of Duty with Honour: The Profession of Arms in Canada (2003), it states that integrity, “calls for honesty, truthfulness, uprightness, the avoidance of deception…” (p. 17). In the new Canadian Armed Forces Ethos: Trusted to Serve (2022), it points out that “a person with integrity is truthful, strong of character and reliable,” (p. 25) and that integrity requires, “pursuing truth regardless of personal consequences” (p. 24). Our professed value in the truth is even shown in the motto of the Royal Military College: “Truth– Duty- Valour.”
The reality that was shown through this qualitative research with the US Army, which can be hard to hear or accept, is that impossible deadlines, the deluge of reporting requirements, the inundation of directives from above, and so much mandatory training is often difficult, if not impossible, to fit into the schedule. These examples can sometimes lead to, what members may tell ourselves, are white lies for the greater good. Add in a culture of “Yes, Sir!”, “Yes, Ma’am!” and “no-fail” and it can be the perfect set-up for dishonesty to become the norm and, therefore, for members to constantly have to choose between lying or standing out from the crowd to be truthful. This, in the military culture, can lead to scorn from their colleagues and supervisors and potentially hurt their advancement (e.g. being the only one who is unable to report 100% compliance in X,Y,or Z).
Some applicable key words found in the report, that may or may not ring a bell, include: “hand-waving”, “fudging the numbers”, “massaging the truth”, “checking the box’, “pencil-whipping it,” “bending the truth, “giving them [leaders] what they want”. One member stated that “You gotta make priorities, we met the intent, or we got creative” (Wong & Gerras, 2015, p. 8). In “feeding the beast” with inaccurate statistics, in reporting 100% compliance when 85% would be more accurate, when signing that a personnel briefing took place when it did not, when reporting that unit members have completed mandatory training when, actually, time did not allow, when filling in colorful PowerPoint slides with questionable numbers, many lead to members experiencing “ethical fading.” Ethical fading occurs when the “moral colors of an ethical decision fade into bleached hues that are void of moral implications. Ethical fading allows us to convince ourselves that considerations of right or wrong are not applicable to decisions that in any other circumstances would be ethical dilemmas” (Wong & Gerras, 2015, p. 17). This can lead to ethical numbness and then, at that point, we must question whether dishonesty will grow beyond trivial small “numbers fudging” to more monumentally dishonest acts.
The report lists various examples related to training, compliance, finances, and actions taken during operations related to reporting. Being a Training Development Officer (TDO), I was reminded of the dishonesty of acquiring a course certificate from merely flipping through e-learning pages and not applying oneself to actually learning the content. The report shared a situation where one of the “smart” members sat down at a computer and quickly completed the course and printed the certificate for all nine section members. Another example included a Sergeant printing off course completion certificates for the whole team, knowing full well that the training had not been given.
As I am presently working at the Chief, Professional Conduct & Culture, I am especially disturbed by the following example:
“One captain spoke of trying to complete mandatory Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program (SHARP) training:
We needed to get SHARP training done and reported to higher headquarters, so we called the platoons and
told them to gather the boys around the radio and we said, ‘Don’t touch girls.’ That was our quarterly
SHARP training.” (Wong & Gerras, 2015, p. 13)
Again, this example took place in the US Army, but it is worth reflecting on. In a situation where mandatory training requirements are so heavy that there is physically not enough time in the day to complete them, along with the avalanche of other administrative responsibilities that are continually passed down from the highest levels, is this example a common result? “It [the US Army] is excessively permissive in allowing the creation of new requirements, but it is also amazingly reluctant to discard old demands” (Wong & Gerras, 2015, p. 18). This may or not be relatable to the CAF context but, in my opinion, it is worth some consideration.
What Can Be Done?
So, how do the authors of this report suggest moving beyond dishonesty in the profession?
1) Acknowledge the Problem– We should discuss these things openly and honestly without fear of reprisal. Leaders should lead the discussion. They should admit that they know these things happen at all levels from their own experiences.
2) Exercise Restraint– Restraint must be given towards the number of no-fail tasks and #1 priorities. Workload must actually be accomplish-able. Mandatory training and new directives can come from all directions at all different levels and leaders must “shoulder the burden of prioritizing” (Wong & Gerras, 2015, p. 30). Leaders must also consider what is actually required and valuable in terms of reporting and, then, prioritize appropriately. If everything is vital, then nothing is. Perhaps 100% compliance, for example, is not realistic in a given context and 85% compliance could actually be an acceptable risk. If a legacy requirement is no longer important, consider getting rid of it. Also, if the requirement is important, ensure that the member providing information, completing the training, or checking whatever box, understands why it is important. If the importance is understood, it should decrease dishonest reporting or the fudging of numbers.
3) Lead Truthfully – Leading truthfully could include “speaking truth to power” while insisting that training module X,Y, or Z is not worth being mandatory training for the whole organization. Leading truthfully informs subordinates that accurate reporting is more important that achieving 100%.
In terms of reflections, do we, in the CAF, condone dishonesty or perhaps even expect dishonesty in some circumstances/situations? Are we generally overwhelmed with the deluge of requirements that seem impossible to meet? Do our members and leaders sometimes face the feeling of dissonance that comes with needing to “feed the beast” bogus &/or inaccurate information in a time crunch, all the while feeling the need to maintain a self-identity of “a person with integrity [who] is truthful, strong of character and reliable,” (DND, 2022, p. 25) as required by our CAF Ethos. Does this report describe merely a problem within the US Army, or are there aspects of this report that ring true and relatable for you within the CAF context?
I hope I have given you some good food for thought and that I have done justice in summarizing this excellent report. If you have found this topic interesting, I highly recommend that you take the time to read and reflect on the full report: Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession
Leonard Wong Dr. and Stephen J. Gerras Dr., Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession ( US Army War College Press, 2015), https://press.armywarcollege.edu/monographs/466
National Defence. (2003). Summary of Duty with Honour: the Profession of Arms in Canada.
National Defence. (2022). Canadian Armed Forces Ethos: Trusted to Serve.