An Allegory on Institutional Identity

As a promised follow-up from my most recent article, I will be taking you down a road less traveled on institutional identity, and the barriers, challenges, and military lessons learned that you will likely encounter.

Truth is often found in humorous stories and parables – not necessarily individual or momentary truth, but a type of universal or summative lesson on human experience. The following story is one you have probably heard…

Suppose you are in 1st Squad, Alpha Company, HQ Battalion, 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, US Army. You are talking with your fellow squadmates on the most commonly discussed subject amongst this specific group – how horrible 2nd Squad is at everything. 2nd Squad doesn’t get it. They never do. They are either late, chewed up, or both. “1st Squad doesn’t do things like that…” Or so says your squad leader on a regular basis. And on and on it goes. You are a strong squad with close camaraderie, you are 1st Squad, definitely not 2nd Squad.

Now suppose you are with members of Alpha Company out at a bar on the weekend. A diverse group of Squads one through four, all together enjoying your time off. Inevitably the conversation turns to something everyone agrees on – how horrible Charlie Company is. Charlie Company has at least one person show up late to morning formation every week. This results in collective punishment. “Hey A Co, don’t be like Charlie Company. We hold ourselves to a higher standard…” Or so says your Company commander each week, it seems. And on and on it goes. You are alpha company for a reason, and you know it.

This line continues up the organizational ladder – protecting and identifying the self as a positive function of negation – I/we are not that, we are this. This is not in-group out-group thinking, but rather interchangeable identity construction on the basis of your environment. And it’s effective.

Imagine now that you are out of the military (or continuing with the example above, the Army), and you come across a fellow veteran from the Navy. You have an instant connection. You bump into each other while standing in a line at Starbucks and each notice a small tell, whether it be a militaristic mannerism, article of clothing or accessory, or just an intuition. Tigers recognize their own stripes… For 20 minutes you share stories of your time in the service and inevitably come to the reprise – these civilians just don’t get it. They don’t understand how to lead, how to train new staff, or how to develop an organization with higher values and principles. Lateness is commonplace, dress is unkempt, and don’t even start on the hair and hygiene. Statements will likely begin with back in my day, or when I was in command. You’ve made a great new friend and had a great time sharing stories, but mainly you just quipped on identity negation and reaffirmed your own identity, experience, and norms. This is the order of things. It is good, and effective.

Do you imagine that this is different anywhere else?

The allegory above is interchangeable within different institutions, sectors, industries, and departments. Take my own experience within a Congolese-based NGO. Real Africa focused international development initiatives are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Northern Africa doesn’t count, of course. Central African development initiatives are the real development challenge and need, we shouldn’t be focused on West Africa. Everybody is willing to start a project in Rwanda but eastern Congo is where the real challenge is. And on and on it goes. Within my specific sub-sub-sub sector of the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, I get inquiries and questions almost daily as to why we are still focusing on the Kivu region, as opposed to either the Ituri or Katanga Provinces (do note that the Ituri and Katanga provinces are different, and think they are more important than the other).

When you make your transition from military to civilian (especially if you are making the big leap as per my last article), you will be ready for this phenomena – because it is the exact same as in the military! Everyone has a problem with the human resources department (HR), much the same way that everyone hates the S-Shops (especially S-1). You have a [insert problem or issue] with your supervisor/boss/commander? Get in line. Your co-workers/teammates aren’t pulling their weight? Great story…

This article is ultimately an appeal to dialectical thinking – or taking seemingly opposing ideas or perspectives (in this case military v. civilian), and reconciling these differences in a coherent framework that works for you. If you like taking 6-minute breaks from work to watch YouTube, click here!

If you learn from this article, soon enough you’ll find yourself and interdepartmental colleagues complaining about the fundraising department.