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What is your unit's culture?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Bill Barrington
  • 90th Missile Maintenance Squadron commander
Every unit, organization and group of people who work together for a common goal develops a culture. In the Air Force, it could be your section, flight, squadron, wing, etc. Even the Air Force itself has a different culture than the other service branches. The best explanation I ever found is from Debra Major, an expert on organizational culture.

Her definition is rather simple: Culture is the personality of a unit. This is best observed through a unit's artifacts and values. Artifacts include things that are observable such as how we dress, how we address each other, what we hang on the walls and the conditions of offices and buildings. Look around any work center and the culture emerges from photos, plaques and trophies on display. Mottos and unit chants used at awards ceremonies are another example of each unit's culture.

As new members join an organization, they are immersed into the culture. Culture change can be driven by internal and external factors. Think about the influence of social media. The number of friends you have once meant the group you would go to the movies with -- not how many followers you had on Facebook or Twitter. Individuals today are tied together by technology rather than spending time together. This too changes a culture. Several events over the past ten years have changed the Air Force culture -- personnel reductions, budget cutbacks, wars overseas. Thinking back ten years, we have less people and money available today to accomplish a more intense mission. Facilities and events we once took for granted are now locked, closed and gone forever. This impacts our culture.

As leaders, how do we adjust? How do we keep people focused on the mission? How do we develop an identity that builds unit cohesion? First, step back and take a look at your unit:

What is hanging on the walls? What are the mottos or cheers? Who does your unit revere?

How do you measure success? What the leader constantly measures, monitors or notices is important.

What behaviors do you model? The leader sets the example. How does your uniform look?

What actions do you reward or punish? These actions also relay what is important to you and the unit.

Finally, what stories are told about your organization and passed down to new members?

Do you like what you see? If so, keep reinforcing what is there. If not, start to slowly make the needed changes. But, don't go it alone. Change is much easier with the assistance of a leadership team. Get their buy-in first.

I think the culture we have in the Air Force is one of the greatest reasons many Airmen decide to continue their service beyond initial enlistments and commitments. It is much different, and more precious, than anything encountered outside the military. Our culture defines who we are and impacts how we accomplish the mission. Take a minute to observe your unit's culture and ask: "Is this who we are and who we should be?" If so, strive to maintain a successful culture and be mindful when making changes. If the culture isn't what it should be, set out now to make the needed changes -- the mission may depend on it.