Bridging the Officer-Enlisted Gap

My Repair Division Sailors and I during my first deployment
My Deck Division Sailors and I pose for a photo during a divisional BBQ

Happy Friday! I just finished studying 1 Corinthians during my personal devotions, and I was struck by how we can apply the lessons Paul teaches to the church in Corinth to our military organization. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses the analogy of “one body with many members” to illustrate the idea that even though we are blessed by God with different spiritual gifts, we are all equally valuable as long as we use our gifts to contribute to the unification of the body of Christ (the church). Similarly, though officers and enlisted Sailors have different roles and responsibilities within the greater military “body,” they are all equally important and must function well together in order to accomplish the mission. I hope you find this entry useful and I look forward to any feedback you all might have!

Coming into the Navy as an Ensign (O-1) and being placed in charge of a division of 15 enlisted Sailors aboard a US Destroyer is very weird. I was 22 years-old, I had no experience in the “big Navy,” and I was already responsible for a group of 15 Sailors, most of whom were older than me and had been in the Navy for 5-15 years already! While your Sailors are supposed to respect you for your rank, it is often difficult to establish this respect in the beginning, because unfortunately many officers abuse their rank with their enlisted Sailors. Earning the respect and trust of your Sailors is imperative to the success of your division. But doing so is a tricky balance! You must remain humble because let’s face it, you really have no idea what is going on in the beginning, but you must also have a compelling presence so that you can establish yourself as the leader of your division.

Before I list my thoughts on bridging the officer-enlisted gap, I want to provide a disclaimer: some officers may disagree with me on these points. The relationship between officers and enlisted members varies greatly from command to command, from community to community within the Navy, and from branch to branch within the military. For example, my relationships with my enlisted Sailors in the Surface Warfare Community needed to remain formal, whereas in Garrett’s community (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), there is a more relaxed atmosphere where first names are often used. My thoughts below are based on my specific experiences as a Naval Surface Warfare Officer, but I hope these points provide a launching pad for thought on this very important topic.

  • Explain the “why.” Often times, as an officer, you are privy to meetings and discussions that review the higher-level operational and even strategic impacts of your current missions. Make sure to share this information with your Sailors.
  • Ask your Sailors for ideas and let them be a part of every solution. Enlisted Sailors present a wealth of experiential knowledge and this helps them come up with creative solutions that you might not think of.
  • Do not micromanage (I am really bad at this by the way). While it is important that you review all work that occurs in your division because you are ultimately responsible, micromanaging shows a lack of trust. “Trust but verify.”
  • Ask them to teach you about their specific jobs and ask lots of questions to show you are engaged and you care. They are the SMEs (subject-matter experts), not you.
  • Participate in the grunt work with them, when appropriate. Some of my favorite moments with my Sailors were when I was helping them scrub fan rooms, bust rust on the bulkhead, or painting the anchor chain spooled out on a barge.
  • Remember SPECIFIC things about their lives and ask them SPECIFIC questions. When I first got to my ship, I scheduled individual meetings with each of my Sailors (my Chief Petty Officer was also there with me because as a rule of thumb, you never want to be alone with one of your Sailors). After learning about their background, family, and goals, I tried to remember key facts such as the name of their spouse or their sister or brother. I would then periodically ask them about that person, by name. They usually seemed surprised I remembered! (By the way I wrote down all of this information when we first sat down for the interview so that I could go back and reference it). Also, if you record your Sailor’s professional and personal goals, you can be looking for ways to assist them in achieving these things.
  • I had my entire division over to my house for a BBQ. This was a fun opportunity to meet my Sailors’ significant others and children.
  • I shared books with them in order to share my faith. My favorite book to loan my Sailors was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. It is not an overtly Christian book but it has a fantastic and surprising ending that includes the Gospel message. I also gave This Present Darkness by Frank E. Peretti to a couple of my Sailors.
  • I invited my Sailors to church. Even when they were at church with my husband and I, we maintained professional boundaries to include calling each other by rank and last name.

What are your thoughts?

Post by Brynn Gray