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Take care of Airmen with ‘Rules of Thumb’

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Antonio Hickey
  • 451st Air Expeditionary Wing command chief
I'm often asked by new supervisors what to do when one of our Airmen runs into some kind of disciplinary issue. I'll admit, determining the appropriate level of disciplinary action is probably the most difficult thing to do as a leader.

Coming down too heavy on an Airman destroys motivation and frequently puts the individual into a position where they lose hope of recovering. That can lead to a downward spiral where the individual quickly runs down a path of self-destruction.

Conversely, failing to take an appropriate level of disciplinary action usually leads to further problems due to lack of accountability. Left unchecked, this can lead to organizational dysfunction. It can also set up an Airman for failure further on down the road when another supervisor or leader takes appropriate action, much to the surprise of the Airman who has become accustomed to a lack of accountability.

Throughout the years, I've learned a general set of rules that I try to follow when determining how I will respond to disciplinary issues. While not all-inclusive, there are three "Rules of Thumb" that I make a conscious effort to consider when making recommendations.

First and foremost, Our Airmen do not wake up in the morning and decide that they are going to do a bad job. Our Airman, and really most people for that matter, wake up each day and plan to do their best. When Airmen go astray, something usually happened during the course of the day that changed their intent.

As a supervisor and leader, you should always look for what happened to change the Airman's vector. Sometimes it can be a simple organizational factor that's a quick fix. Other times it can be a complicated personal issue that requires sound guidance and assistance from the supervisor. In any case, there is almost always a reason for the behavior.

Second, There are at least two sides to every story ... never rush to judgment until you've heard them all. The reality is that we each bring a different perspective to the table when we interpret an event. That perspective frames our reference and can make a huge difference in how we interpret something.

I can't tell you how many times I've had people in my office explaining the same event or conversation with completely different stories about what happened. Not that any of them were lying or being deceptive in any way ... they just viewed the event differently based on their backgrounds and experiences.

The reality is that the truth is somewhere in between and you need to get all of the facts in order to make a decision. Failing to do this quickly leads to lack of trust and confidence.

The last "Rule of Thumb" I always consider is Almost all Airmen deserve a second chance. There are some crimes that do not allow for a second chance but in general, it is always best to allow an individual a chance to recover.

I will admit though that, as a person moves up in rank and responsibility, I cut them less slack in this area. But for a young Airman, I believe we should let them recover and see if the incident was an isolated event or whether it is the beginning of a habit pattern inconsistent with military service.

The concept of the second chance does have its hazards, and I have been disappointed on a couple of occasions. However, I also know a lot of senior leaders who might not be around today (including myself) if they had not been given a second chance. More often than not, you'll find that most Airmen will recover and go on to lead successful careers if given the chance.

Although these "Rules of Thumb" are by no means all-inclusive, they have been a great starting point for me. I think you'll find that believing in your Airmen, running down all of the facts, and allowing an opportunity to recover will almost always lead you to a course of action that is not only in the best interests of our Airmen, but the Air Force as well.