Military vs. civilian workplace culture – which is more suited to government?

Home Forums Human Resources Military vs. civilian workplace culture – which is more suited to government?

This topic contains 29 replies, has 18 voices, and was last updated by  Jenyfer Johnson 9 years, 2 months ago.

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  • #136029

    I have long been an admirer of military culture and the discipline it promotes…the military also seems to have some clear advantages with respect to training, communication, innovation, etc. However, the military is obviously very chain-of-command.

    On the other hand, what I call “civilian culture,” especially newer management thinking, prizes individual empowerment, collaboration, creativity, etc. which are important factors for productivity too. On the other hand, too much empowerment can lead to a breakdown in process.

    What do you think – is this an accurate view of the difference between military and civilian culture? Which approach is better suited to government agencies now?

  • #136087

    Jenyfer Johnson

    Having worked for a Naval base where we had little to no contact with military personnel and an Air Force base where we work side-by-side with the military I have to agree with both of your points above. The military is VERY chain-of-command and IMHO seem to be more stuck on the “product” versus the actual end result. What I mean is letters, plans, etc. must be the right format and perfect before they are sent. When I worked for a civilian organization they wanted things right but were not as “hung up” on the correctness versus the fact that the job needed to be accomplished. This could possibly be the difference between the Navy and Air Force…but I prefer the civilian culture better!

  • #136085

    Steve Ressler

    I’m not super familiar with military culture but I have to say that my few meetings at Pentagon and at high levels of DOD show a pretty forward thinking culture. So I wonder if it really varies within DOD.

    Pentagon to me was like a college campus with the garden, people reading, etc. Also there’s a ton of learning programs at DOD that I was shocked to hear – I met people that did 1-year details to Google and PR agencies and remember Petraus went to Princeton to get a PhD on DOD’s dime.

    More of a hypothesis but anyone else seen this?

  • #136083

    Benjamin Strong


    Thanks for writing this piece. I work in a military organization as a civilian. I am prior enlisted, so I understand both sides of the fence.

    The one problem I see working in a military organization is that despite my institutional knowledge, I’m often regarded as “lower than whale shit” or “just a civilian”. This is troubling. I should add this is more often the exception rather than the rule, but it is evident at all levels of the organization- from the lowest nonrate to the flag corps.

    The advantages I reap as a civilian working in my organization is institutional knowledge and continuity. I don’t transfer every three or four years. I have taken the time to learn the culture and do my best to add value to my uniform counterparts. I hope my uniform colleagues view me as a resource, able to fill in the gaps when necessary and, as needed, actually stepping in and taking the lead if appropriate.

    The disadvantage to working in this type of organization is the “inch deep and mile wide” senior leadership. They don’t, and can’t, know everything. One would think they would lean hard on their civilian subject matter experts, but often they don’t. Another disadvantage are JOs (junior officers) who are afraid to tell senior leaders when they have no clothes. JOs are concerned with one thing- marks. If they don’t get good marks they don’t promote, get good assignments, it’s career ending. They often (not always) view marks over common sense and disregard what civilians have to offer.

    I jokingly tell new officers that my job as a civilian is to ensure they (the new officer) earns the Legion of Merit.

    Would I change where I work? No way. Could things be better? Things could always be better.

  • #136081

    Brooksann Epiceno

    As a veteran who served for 10 years, I can tell you the military chain of command has its pros and cons as does anything. The difference you point out really has to do with who is in the chain. I have had leaders in my chain of command who prized individual thinking to develop the next generation of leaders. After all those people will some day be in charge of someone else. On the other hand, I have had leaders in my chain of command that micromanage. They constantly ask what I am doing and double check it before it goes out of the our hands.

    As a civilian contractor, I have noticed the exact same two types of people except the guidelines of who is actually in charge of what can get blurred. I think the people in leadership positions that choose to mentor and trust thier subordinates get the job done more effectively. Because everyone just wants to know that their supervisor, whether he/she addresses that person as Sergeant or Mister has confidence in his/her abilites to get tasks completed.

  • #136079

    Brooksann Epiceno

    I agree that too many people in the military are overly concerned about marks for promotion versus the job getting done correctly, which can be very difficult if that person is in your chain of command.

  • #136077

    Carol Davison

    Danielle having been both military and civilian I’ve experienced both styles styles of leadership. As a 19 year old USAF E-3 under the leadership of an E-5, I wrote reports that would cause the Navy to scramble fighters and the Air Force to cancel flight missions. I would often see the subject of my work on the news. As a Navy GS-13 I would offer recruiting bonsuses, and then write the policy for my Executive Director to sign. I knew it would be approved, sometimes without edit. As the TRAINING OFFICER I recruited more employees than the “other” two “civilian” recruiters in our office, who in contrast maintained files outstandingly. I also found money to do really cool things like take my organization out on the U.S.S. Nimitz to meet the war fighter and see the planes take off and land on the hanger deck. The theory is that when you have an emotional expereince like that it changes your behavior so you work more effectivley to serve the war fighter. I think the “empowering for the war fighter” mentality and realizing that “more sweat in training, less blood in combat” changes your sense of urgency and how one conducts business. If only we could civilianize that statement! In contrast working non DOD as a GS-14 I need 7 approvals before I can offer a Microsoft Excel class to my customers, which as you can imagine in maddening. There are good, bad, controlling, empowering, political, saints, egotists, and what have you whereever you go.

  • #136075

    G. Todd Wyngaard

    I spent five years in the Army right after college. I left the Army and started a civilian career in both Fortune 500 companies and small businesses. I’ve just recently returned to the government as a GS employee. I’ve read through the comments and would definitely agree with many of the points. Both cultures bring something to the table, but because they are cultures made up of many different people with many different personalities, life experiences, etc. they can be taken to extremes. The “civilian culture” is constantly evolving and changing to meet the demands of the market because if it doesn’t than the company doesn’t survive. Individualism and self-interest that can lead to disloyalty and corruption are some of the same forces which drive innovation, creativity, and rapid growth that are critical to companies. While the market drives budgets, personnel, strategies, and ultimately culture in the civilian business landscape, the world, its threats, and politics drive the military culture. The military is big and everything it does is played out on a world stage. Structure and hierarchy help manage its size, control its actions, and maintain accountability of its personnel. It also can lead to tyrranical leadership, game playing for advancement, and slow change. The size and power of the military help provide a buffer when the world and the enemy changes rapidly and allows it to catch up and evolve to meet the demands of the new threat (ie open warfare with main battle tanks vs. street to street fighting in urban areas). Most companies don’t have that same buffer, that same reaction time, to adjust to the market slowly. So the culture of each is created by the environment it finds itself in and each is prone to abuses and extremes, but if the question is which is suited better for the government my answer would have to be the military. Not because it is better or worse but because the environment of the military is more similar to the government than the civilian world is. That also means it will be subject to the same issues and concerns of the military. And that doesn’t mean that the government, and the military for that matter, cannot learn a lot from the civilian world. The values of teamwork, mission focus, self-evaluation, and accountability are critical to all three cultures. Understanding the unique threats to these in each “culture” and attacking them using all levels of leadership to get better should be the common denominator for all three. That’s my two cents anyways…

  • #136073

    Deborah Johnson

    This may sound merely sarcastic, but it’s true: If I wanted a military management structure in my place of employment, I’d have joined the military. Seriously, I work for a city next door to a military installation, so I can clearly see the difference. I’ll stick with an “empowered” organization, thanks.

  • #136071

    Jack Shaw

    My time between the military and civilian government jobs (with civilian jobs in between) are split almost equally. My experience has been that the military was more flexible when it came to people and supporting them in the workplace (but there may be a difference in the services – I was a USAF officer and USMC enlisted), however, I worked for civilians for whom profit ruled; it seemed they could see only that bottom line and were in a hurry to achieve it and the only goal after that was to find ways to get richer. Do that and you’re in.

    Government civilians I have worked with were too worried or too impressed with their own careers, resisted change or creativity, attended meetings to be seen, micromanaged employees, and rarely would give a subordinate work that could get them promoted or placed in a position to ask for it. While I’m sure that attitude exists in some form everywhere, it is in this government environment that has disappointed me the most. I liked that my military boss trusted me to do the job and didn’t worry that I might make too much of a splash to outshine him. If anything, he looked after my career as a mentor, always setting an example, not looking for ways to mark down; instead he encouraging and helping me to shine. He made the regulations work for his people, not bludgeon them until they disliked coming to work. Military by the book, he was not; although I did work for an Army officer that was. So, it’s not a perfect situation either.

    I’ve had one government boss who was more like my military boss, but she was soon ready to retire rather be told how to treat one of her people for fear they might be noticed and singled out by others.

    We don’t operate in a people-friendly environment. Sometimes it seems it’s everyman for himself, which is why retirement for me will be a welcome change. The military supports its people. The Air Force in particular is more people conscious. Merit means something. Doing good things can outweigh the things you aren’t so good at. The best part is highlighted and the organization uses your unique talents. Government currently says all the right things but puts so much paperwork on it only the truly terribly-not-busy individuals have time to fill it out. It’s easier to stay with the status quo and keep the front office happy. The office I work in is very chain-of-command without the other benefits because that controls the situation and keeps everyone in their place; I’d rather be where my work is valued and my mistakes, a learning experience, rather than a way of keeping me in my place and showing my superior to be superior and always right.

    For me the government seems disingenuous, taking some ideas from both cultures but not truly embracing them and the result diminished and often unfair except to those on senior staff. The government has more security than a civilian organization, but that is the price we pay if we need that more than money.

  • #136069

    Peter Sperry

    There are so many subcultures within the military, civilian government, private sector for profit and private sector non profit worlds of work that generalizations are sketchy at best. The Park Service and Homeland security are both civilian government but with very different cultures. The same applies to the Marine Corps and the Air Force. I’ve moved back and forth across several sectors and usually find that an organizational culture does not extend as far as either its propents or detracters belief. It is not uncommon for the culture to change from one office to the next on the same floor.

    The best culture is the one which achieves the organizational objectives while gaining the most approval from internal and external stakeholders. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. So the next best culture is the one that achieves the organizational objectives with or without gaining approval from various stakeholders. Organizations which fail to achieve their objectives cannot be said to have a succesful culture regardless of the approval level from stakeholders.

    It is critical to remember that cultural norms which lead to great success in one environment can be ineffective or counterproductive under different circumstances. GE and Goldman Sachs have demanding “demonstrate success every year or lose your job” cultures. They are enormously successful at what they do. The same culture would probably fail miserably in civilian government. The Marine Corps culture might not work for the Air Force and neather would be a good model for the EPA; but than again the culture at the FBI would probable not fit in well at EPA either.

  • #136067

    Jack Shaw

    I agree with Peter for the most part, but I think the primary difference may be the way we look at leadership in that culture. Do leaders earn and keep their place because they produce results from the internal and external stakeholders or do they remain no matter what? I don’t believe in strict formulas or labeling. I still think the more people-based approach works. With companies like GE and Goldman Sachs success is based on money. If people also base their success and worth on the amount of money they can make for the company, they are probably okay with the organizational culture; however, if they is not so motivated, they would probably fail at their jobs, or at least be unhappy in that culture unless what they base their worth on is met. I think there is success by degree; true failure is not an option. 25 people can sit on a committee for two years and do the work 4 contractors could do in two months. There is success; it took two years to accomplish.

  • #136065

    This is such a fascinating conversation to me. Thank you all for sharing your experiences and comments. It seems that there are a few common threads so let me just pull them out and test if I’m understanding correctly –

    * to an extent these generalizations seem useful

    * on the other hand every agency is different and every boss is different so take it with a grain of salt

    * many in civilian government have military experience and vice versa

    * civilians in the military are looked upon as second-class citizens

    * the military has a strong learning culture

    * the military and private industry seem to have clearer missions generally (clearer metrics for success) versus at some agencies it’s hard to know what the end goal is

    * the bureaucracy in civilian cultures is maddening and unnecessary – why do we perpetuate this?

    * a good boss knows when to bend the rules…but they have to keep their employees in line or else they will be seen as “nails that stick out” and need hammering down

    I guess the followup question for me is, given that we (in civilian agencies especially) work in hybrid military-civilian cultures, what can we do to bring “the best of both worlds” to reality? ideas please!

  • #136063

    I did 22 years with the Air Force/Air Guard/DoD and was ALWAYS reminded that I worked for civilians – they were not second class citizens; they were our bosses AND our customers. I had great bosses and terrible bosses. Now that I’m a GS, I too am alternately surprised and occasionally dissappointed at both the innovation and the stagnation I encounter around me.

    What we can do is recognize, reward, celebrate the good, and loudly, frequently, constructively call out the bad. (in government and elsewhere) There’s always risk involved, but the risk of not saying something is way more painful to me and my sanity.

  • #136061

    Mary Scott

    Test reply

  • #136059

    Personally, I think that the workplace culture will mimic the workforce. Here in USPS, initially there were more military undertones to the culture. This was because the hire’s were more from the military. They brought their culture (e.g., thinking, management style, etc) to USPS. Now, we are hiring more civilian employees AND the military bunch are retiring. This is causing the workplace culture to shift. It’s a painful process but, it happening. Since, i’m not a military guy (past, present or future), i’m more comfortable with the civilian approach. Along with its imperfections.

    Just my thoughts.

  • #136057

    Jack Shaw


    I agree the workforce definitely influences the workplace culture. I understand your logic and understand how you feel–however it is from an opposite perspective though. It may have been because my military experience offered me a lot of freedom in the exercise of my duties, and I felt I was respected by those around me as capable of doing the job I was assigned on my terms. That too was respected. It is how I came to understand a positive work culture–at least for me.

    My government agency experience was not a balance of both civilian and military cultures but something altogether different. Most of the employees came from the social services areas–either social workers straight from college or researchers in the public service arena and had a different management style the typical business model would not see as very valuable to them. In other words, they came straight from student to government.

    Most of the civilians who come from a business are contractors and some are doing such a great job, they are being appreciated by management to the disappointment of the others who came from social services and public research. Innovation is ahead though I think due to the civilians who have come to the workforce. I wish the military model or a least a business model of leadership had been part of the equation. In time, maybe…

    As for the imperfections, I’m sure it’s purely situational. Civilian and military practices all work in their place, but that’s not to say we shouldn’t try to learn from each other, which I think is the purpose of this post.

  • #136055

    Good Points Jack. I think the take away is that we “learn from each other”. This involves having an open mind along with a willingess to consider other options. This includes from a military and/or civilian standpoint.

  • #136053


    In DOD agencies, top management is the military CO (commanding officer- always military), XO (executive officer, sometimes civilian SES), and Deputy Director (always civilian). The military component rotates every 2 or 3 years. Imagine having new executive management, staggered, every 2 years! How effective can that be? The first 6 months they are learning the ropes, because they do not have direct experience with the new assgnment or location. And, the last 6 months they are working on the best deal for their next assignment. They are rightfully distracted and have other things to do. The civilian workforce in either DOD, security, or civilian agency is the same, it changes very little and maintains the continuity of the organizational infrastructure for the warfighter. Military and security personnel are flying, floating, bombing, shooting, stabbing, training. The civilian is witness to the military and security officer mission, while working the civilian business line. Before 911, the military was taking on a corporate posture, almost in direct competition and looking like the civilian workforce gone Barron’s. After 911, they became warriors, yearning to be distiguished soldiers with little want for civilian things. The civilians continue the job of maintaining the continuity of the organizational infrastructure and keeping the homefires burning in support of the military mission.

  • #136051


    I have to add that the most painful and agonizing thing I ever witnessed as a civilian in a military agency was military managment trying to conduct the NSPS Program. Imagine civilians managing military promotions and commendations! What a hoot!

  • #136049


    Civilians in military agencies do not work in a hybrid culture. Civilians are not military. Maybe former military expects to be treated as military as a civilian, but even though they cannot shake that bond, they are not military anymore! Civilians maintain the continuity of the organizational infrastructure in support of the military mission. The military culture is separate from the civilian workforce. Ultimately, the military does its thing, and the civilian workforce does its thing The military is the civilian organization’s customer. The military places its order for service, and the civilian negotiates and provides.

  • #136047

    Julie Chase

    @Terry. You hit the nail on the head. Loved your posts and totally agree. The military is my customer and my dept supports the warfighter. We are heavily laden with paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. As a 10 yr cs employee, I have never seen so much paper to do “simple” tasks. Everything from ordering office supplies to procuring a government vehicle. I can read every Bulletin, AO, Publication, NAVSUP, whatever, and it’s all Greek to me. Just tell me “in english” what the SOP is, and/or how you want things done, and viola!, let me do it. Reference a. b. c. refer to AO 4567.2 para. 5, you lost me already. And goodness knows when these “letters” get updated. I now understand the meaning of “hurry up and wait”. I have heard it’s all about the “process” & the “steps”. By the time you reach the result, you have to recall what it was you wanted in the first place. Every answer is, this is way we do things here and have always done it this way. Ok, let’s begin, I will need 1 case of copy paper to start. :op

  • #136045

    Joseph L. Smith

    As a former Army guy (Military Police) currently working for the CDC, with a gap of about 15 years in service, first of all I can say that I am proud to be working for “Uncle Sam” again.

    I don’t necessarily think military culture and civilian culture need be mutually exclusive. My best leaders in the Army were able to cultivate empowerment and individual efforts; it was only in the surreal experience of boot camp where I was told “You don’t get paid to think, soldier.”

    Conversely, as a member of the federal workforce, the better leaders here understand individual initiative, but appreciate, at the end of the day, that I am going to “follow orders” and respect the chain of command.

    And I confess my bias here, but the vets I have seen working for the fed are generally flexible and able to assimilate into a civilian context fairly quickly. (Again–biased).

  • #136043

    Al Fullbright

    We already have a government culture made up of ex-military. Many of the people in government have never worked in the private sector. Consequentially, we are developing a MILITARY CLASS where the sons and daughters go to military service and then to government. The all-volunteer force is also perpetuating it. The military is not really composed of all segments of society and worse than that; they think their military service somehow is a boost – that it somehow makes them better prepared to serve in government.

    I would argue that a government that is top heavy with Militarists might explain why we have been in so many wars since our inception. In my lifetime we have been involved in one war after another and we are apparently going to fight to the last dollars worth of ammo. The country is deeply in debt and we are putting money all over the world.

    We should be choosing our leaders from our state universities (not the privileged halls of Ivy League schools) and we should be advancing the State University system with enough scholarships and loans to make sure we have an even cross section.

  • #136041


    One of my favorite quotes is “Be humble, a lot happened before you were born.” That is so true for many of the processes used to get the job done. Its never about the way its always been done. Its about change. Identify these things. Dig a little deeper to understand it and see if it can be made better. Learn more about it and more things in the process. Plan to eventually come across or create something or move into something that is beneficial and become the expert in it by making it better. Just don’t try to do something the same way! Then, give it to someone else, let it go and watch it grow, and move on to something else that needs expertice and insight gained from previous experience. That can only help the process, the workplace, and the career! And, it sure makes for a much more interesting job and employee.

  • #136039

    Jack Shaw

    I would disagree with Al’s assumption the government culture is filled with ex-military–among other things. It certainly wasn’t true when I signed up and still isn’t true in my agency. I was, in fact, one of very few who did come from the military and not directly.

    The problem is political, and the base of people we put in the workforce. If we promote based on seniority, which we often do, and on political affability (we get along with the boss and agree), we have someone who may know the business they are in but only that. Leading and managing a culture, military or civilian, is so much more than that.

    Putting subject-matter-experts who can’t manage people and are threatened by those smarter than them is who we don’t need. Or politicians who are only figureheads. Train people as they come up the “chain” (Is that just a military term?) to be leaders, develop a culture via character traits that will be rewarded

    I, for one, am tired of mediocre, which is what you get sometimes when you get a perfect cross-section of the country; it’s also called average. I don’t want to be part of an average government; I want a dynamic one, a smart thinking one, and one that cares about its people less than it cares about the next career opportunity.

    I am military, civilian and government and I resent any reference as biased as yours. Who am I? An American who is retiring from the government I have loved serving and haven’t always loved the way we treat each other. Believe it or not, I never acted military–just professional. We need to care how to do the best job. Make it easier to help someone who works for us find a niche they will love, and works for us, too. It’s not as black and white. Too often, there’s no time to take care of people, but people make you the success you are. Be a Mark Zuckerberg–all about the subject but not about how it affects people. Good at your job–just part of it. Leading and communicating genuinely is part of it as well whether it comes from the military or civilian side.

    Al, you are entitled to your opinion. If we are developing a military class, we need to deal with it. It’s not like in the movies. All military members are not power hungry; some actually want to serve for serving sake. Some do it because someone has to. The last thing I wanted was to go to war and it wasn’t because I was a coward.

    The same with some government workers. Some genuinely want to serve. Did some come from the elite Ivy League schools? Maybe. Were some politically appointed there by their civilian politicians? More likely. Really? So what if they did. So what if they had money or didn’!.

    Remember, EEO? But that was one step at giving everyone–dare I say it–equal opportunity. Whether it works is another blog. Diversity is shown to promote creativity and initiative; I don’t know that it makes the everyday culture work the same way. It’s a right. Communism also said everyone deserved a job. What they didn’t know is that with getting one so easily there was no incentive to improve or innovate. The result you know.

    BTW, I didn’t go to an Ivy League school; I went to a State University in the Midwest. Business works on the principle of getting the best who can do the best job; sometimes that means they go to the schools with the reputation. The military operates more on merit. Seems a combination is more appropriate.

  • #136037

    Jack Shaw

    One of the things I have heard repeated here is a reluctance to adapt to the culture if you are not a part of the original culture in place or power.

    The language doesn’t make sense, the acronyms are foreign. “Just tell me what you need!”

    As I was told when asked about actors learning all their lines before rehearsal: professionals, if they want to get paid, need to adapt to what the theatre or in this case the boss director needs you to do. So, even if we don’t like the way it is presented to us, it is still up to us as professionals to do our best to adapt so we understand the message sent and can deliver the product or service desired. No one said we had to like it. Not liking it and fighting will do nothing but make us miserable. If we are artists and idealists, we should find another line of work. Or, we can make ours work for us until we have the luxury of making that change.

    Whatever the situation, we need to work out an accommodation that works for us. When we’re in charge, we can make it the way we want.

    Just a thought.

  • #136035

    Al Fullbright

    It doesn’t appear that way to anyone at the bottom and there are many many regiments of the disenfranchised working against the interests of government because they are not included in education, training, jobs or fair advancement in many government institutions. The poor kid on the street is usually disqualified from higher education & military service before he gets out of puberty.

    A million kids are arrested every year for victimless crimes & the government marks them as outlaws. Kids from the higher classes are nurtured and if there is trouble they are lawyered up to keep those bad marks off their record while the minority kids are rousted and harrassed and labeled for life.

    The middle class kid with a computer of his own, a monthly computer connection, clothes. pocket money, nurturing (Mother & Father) and living in a household with a steady paycheck is in a much more likely to enter the military and advance his training; not just military training, but any type of training or education.

  • #136033

    Kathleen Smith

    Yes it is true there are distinct differences between the two cultures. Super stars are located in both and the environment they are in does help support their super star qualities.

    We tend to think of military as very chain of command, but tend to also dismiss their ” get the job done” mentality and training. Most military folks I know are usually dropped into some kind of situation, given a goal and told to get it done, no matter what. Most of the time this is without extra training, skills or equipment.

    There are also certain codes of conduct in the military on how you treat a fellow colleague, how you conduct yourself and how you look out for others, which is not seen in the civilian community as much.

  • #136031


    So back to the original question… Military vs civilian… which culture is better suited to government… I don’t want a military Senate or Congress, military is not goverment except under marshall law, so I go with civilian!

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