Dealing with the “Culture Shock”

Posted on May 29, 2018

In the past, I have written Blogs about the starkness of the transition from the Military to civilian life, and also about the amusing stories of the transition into the work place.  However, I have had some conversations recently – people seeking my advice – around dealing with the approaches of some ex-military in their new careers, and how to deal with it without causing conflict.  There is a real impact as part of the transition both to the individual, but also, organisationally, and it cannot be ignored.

I often refer to it as Culture Shock, because that is exactly what it is, and it encompasses the entirety of the transition process.  In this Blog, I want to highlight some of the aspects of the transition into the workplace from both the individual’s and the organisational perspectives.

In the military, the Phase 1 training is very much designed to create within us a strong sense of team; from the buddy-buddy system through to the higher formations, we operate as a team.  As a member of team you have responsibility to that team to perform at your best and when you have low times, then the team is there to support.  Phase 2 training is very much designed to give you a broader understanding of your specialism than a civilian of a similar trade might have, such that you fit into a team like a jigsaw piece, able to cover a number of duties across the remit of that team.  Herein is another issue of responsibility; the need to cover off duties for the wider group, and not solely those for the individual assigned.  Additionally, the responsibility for making critical decisions and problem solving are devolved to lower ranks who are aware of the “Commanders Intent” and can therefore align their decision to that and justify it where required.

As a result, we have an awareness of our wider strengths:  We have a strong sense of our responsibilities and capabilities:  We have devolved responsibilities beyond our rank and pay grade, and accept them without thinking.

No one informs us of this kind of cultural misfit when we move into civilian employment, and it can be a cause of conflict in the work place among our peers and more often with our line managers and superiors.  There needs to be some recognition and constant test and adjust on this.

To your new employer, unless they have experience of the ex-military and the culture, this can be quite an impact.  So how does it manifest in the work place?  Let’s us review the examples above.

First, for the main part, civilians work on an individual basis and have one man per role, and this becomes their domain and opportunity to demonstrate “value” and have some “power” – I sometimes call this Post Office Clerk syndrome – that element of power that they have to close their window as you get to it, having waited for 20 minutes in the queue and being in a rush; exasperating –  There is no real sense of Team in many environments and this can feel very frustrating for new service leavers.

Second, there could well be times when one of your civilian colleague and a piece of work that might be a dependency within your delivery schedule, but you cannot do this work for them, without causing conflict.  They use this “power” to show you who is in control of the process, irrespective of it not being in line with the “Commanders Intent”.  Frustrating for the ex-military individual and a prospective HR issue developing.

Thirdly, and perhaps the most potent of the issues is problem solving and decision making in civilian life.  I have heard of a number of situations where service leavers, understanding the need for urgency and leadership will make a decision and issue requirements that are above their pay grade in civilian life.  While it is always done with good intent, with a view to avoiding negative impact on delivery or customer perceptions, the employer sees it differently.  Line Managers may well perceive this as the individual “treading on their toes” or acting outside their remit, irrespective of the good intentions.  This, I think is a more damaging issue, as it can create an insecurity in the Manager, who can then use their influence to make life difficult for the ex-serving member of their team.

Clearly, in this Blog, I am only addressing some more frequently discussed issues that are general in nature and there could be a lot more situations that we could review.  Nevertheless, whatever that situation might be, there are two stark and clear outputs from this:

  • First and foremost, servicemen and women need to recognise how their military training and experience has differentiated them from their civilian counterparts.
  • Second, we need to identify strategies to mitigate any prospective conflict, and tactics to ensure a more seamless transition into the workplace.

My suggestions vary between the situations that are brought to my attention and are dependent upon which party is talking to me about their frustrations.

To the new service leaver (although, I do recognise this in those that have been out for a number of years too), I say, try and develop some buy-in to the way you are working, and do not expect your colleagues to have the same task orientation as you.  As part of the management of your workstream, coax and cajole your colleagues into working to your timescales and keep them informed on how important that dependency is.  Keep things on a level footing, and good humoured, and perhaps allow for some slippage in your calculations for timings.  Explaining to people your background, can sometimes help.

To the employers of ex-servicemen and women, I recommend that you talk to them about their abilities and understand how they like to operate.  If they do “over step the mark” on occasion, then rather than getting frustrated, engage with them, and see if you can utilise their decision making skills productively allowing them to develop their role to suit them; it won’t cost you anymore, and might save some time and money.

Communication both ways is the key.

What experiences have you had in new civilian roles?  Do you recognise some of this and now seek a way to de-conflict?


At what point should you start the Resettlement Process?

  • More than 2 years before you depart? (40%, 6 Votes)
  • 2 years before departure? (33%, 5 Votes)
  • Around 6 months before last day? (13%, 2 Votes)
  • 12 Months prior to departure? (13%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 15

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