Air University Review, March-April 1978

A Perspective for Human Relations

Chief Master Sergeant Willard P. Anderson, USAF (Ret)
Senior Master Sergeant Thomas E. Wolfe

Attaining true unity and harmony among all personnel throughout the Air Force, as each member must know, is a difficult task. However; we must not curb our efforts in an attempt to realize this goal.

The Air Force needs strong, dedicated leaders with the "super vision" necessary to see beyond day-to-day details of the work process. People do not inherit such ability; they must develop it through experience and conscious effort. A primary element of "super vision" is the leader's understanding of human needs on the job and the ability to relate this understanding to subordinates. The basic skills needed by an effective leader are those that teach self-discipline, promote human dignity, and emphasize positive human relations. Perhaps most important, the leader needs to recognize and concern himself with people as individuals without making prejudgments based on obvious differences. This is not to imply that the differences are not important. What we are saying is that the leader needs to understand differences and similarities among people.

One significant result of cultural, ethnic, and personal diversity is the tendency of people to express personal prejudices and stereotypes in their relationships with other people. individuals develop prejudices on the basis of past experience, lack of knowledge or understanding, intimidation or fear, resentment. and incomplete or incorrect information. Many people recognize prejudice in the racial or ethnic connotation, but prejudice also plays a significant role in other areas of human relationships. Supervisors and other leaders, for example, must realize that their personal prejudices can be significant influences in the attitudes of their subordinates and that subordinates may use prejudice to stereotype other people. Supervisors reveal their personal prejudices when they express attitudes and feelings about their superiors, stereotype certain military ranks or career fields as inferior, degrade the educational accomplishments of others, or stereotype people on the basis of their cultural heritage or sex. Such expressions reinforce the prejudices of subordinates and cause resentment and conflict from the offended or injured people.

This article presents a perspective for positive human relations in the context of social changes and their implications for Air Force supervisors. Many changes have been legislated, and others have come as the result of trends in the social order. For example, legislation has outlawed discrimination and suppression based on ethnic or cultural differences. but Air Force supervisors must recognize social reality in that people can use subtle forms of behavior to discriminate against other human beings. The authors of this article offer some concepts based on their experiences in certain important areas that supervisors can easily overlook or misunderstand in their relationships with people; namely, pluralism, need frustration, and "preventive maintenance" in human relations. They do not contend that their approach is "the way" to achieve positive relationships, but it is definitely "a way" that has proved effective for them.

One of the most significant social realities today is the refusal or failure of people to recognize interests, values, and beliefs common to all human beings. They focus instead on differences that tend to divide rather than on common interests that tend to unite people. For instance, there are those who would argue that there are three distinct races of people based on inherited physical characteristics: Mongoloid, Negroid, and Caucasoid. Yet, there may frequently be more inherited physical differences within any of the three given "races" than among the alleged three races of people. There are others who think of race in nationalistic terms, such as the German race, the Jewish race, the Italian race, and so forth. Today many scientists such as geneticists, anthropologists, behaviorists, and sociologists cannot agree on a common definition of race; however, most do agree that biological differences between races do not in any way indicate superiority or inferiority within any race, regardless of the definition used. Nevertheless, many people still act and think as if physical characteristics were indicators of superiority or inferiority. Supervisors must recognize this reality because people attach major significance to ethnic identity in their relationships. For example, one of the authors has often been the victim of personal abuse and ridicule because of his heritage, but, in other instances, he has received outstanding support and encouragement from the most unlikely sources.

Most people like to think that laws have eliminated all trace of discrimination and inequitable treatment, but, in reality, discrimination has merely taken a variety of new forms. Often, people try to exercise specific rights prescribed by law, but they are denied these rights simply because they come from a different ethnic group. For example, in a large Southern city, an Air Force member sought to join a locally advertised ballroom dance club. He discovered, however, that club bylaws did not permit certain ethnic groups to attend club dances or to become members. In some communities, Air Force members are reluctant to invite members of different ethnic backgrounds into their homes because of community or peer pressures.

On many Indian reservations in the United States, tribes observe religious customs that are traditional and sacred in their daily lives. Recently, at a large Air Force base in the Southwest, security police arrested a young Navajo airman who had been born and reared on a Navajo reservation. The airman was carrying a small bag of sacred corn that he used in his daily prayers. Although he tried to explain the importance of the sacred corn bag, the police took it. They finally returned the bag to the airman, but only after the base social actions officer contacted the security police officer and pointed out its significance in Indian culture.

In another incident, a technical sergeant had completed the Air Force instructor course in small arms and was assigned as a small arms instructor at a major Air Force base. When he arrived at his new base, he was assigned the task of cleaning weapons in a back room rather than instructing. When he asked why he was not teaching, his supervisors told him that he had a Spanish-sounding surname, and they assumed that he could not speak English well enough to teach others.

In still another incident, some Air Force members taunted and tormented a young woman in the Air Force because of her Apache heritage. Her peers ridiculed her off-duty dress and her "learned cultural behavior." She had begun her Air Force career as a hard worker with a positive attitude, but, as a result of the conflict caused by her peers, her performance steadily declined until a concerned social actions officer became aware of her situation.

A leader must understand social reality as a vital part of the human relations concept if he expects his subordinates to understand people from different cultural backgrounds. Both the leader and subordinates must recognize that all people have the right to be proud of their cultural background. Unfair or biased comparisons of people from diverse cultures often lead to discord because such comparisons cause people either to become overly concerned with their own personal qualities and achievements or to resort to expressions of bitterness, resentment, and animosity. This inevitably opens the door to conflict with people from different cultural backgrounds and even with people of similar backgrounds.

The right of the individual to express pride in his cultural heritage is very meaningful to most people, but this right is no more meaningful than the individual's duty to respect the rights of others to express pride in their cultural heritage. Recognition of this dual concept is fret1uently a difficult task in supervisory relationships because leaders must earn the respect of their subordinates. An effective leader understands that respect for the rights of others depends largely on the respect that the individual receives from supervisors and peers. Obviously, in relationships with people of diverse cultural backgrounds, a leader must be a model of open and unbiased behavior worthy of emulation by his subordinates. One can never assume that problems will resolve themselves because the priori ties of human needs differ greatly from time to time.

People frequently focus their attention on cultural differences. This tendency may indicate either deliberate or inadvertent efforts to stereotype people as undesirable or inferior of course, people of various cultures may differ considerably in their typical motivations and reactions to their environment, but cultural differences are not indicators of inferiority, low morals, or social degradation. Admittedly, majority members of any social group may not always approve the behavior of other members. But people differ primarily from one another because of what they learn in their formative years. That is, their cultural environment determines the interests, attitudes, values, and beliefs that they develop in relation to other people.

For example, significant characteristics of the Balinese people of Indonesia are their gentle, relaxed, and unaggressive social relationships. These people passively conform to the demands of tradition and show little inclination to compete with other people for pre-eminence or mastery. These are cultural traits developed by tradition. Balinese parents and other family members deliberately tease infants and small children to outbursts of love and anger and then ignore them when they become emotionally aroused. Early in their lives, children learn not to expect responses to embraces or temper tantrums, and they become adults with no strong emotional responses to other people. If a Balinese child wanders away from his village area, emotionally distraught parents do not chase after him. Any person who finds the child leads him calmy back to his family. These and numerous other learning patterns distinguish the Balinese culture from other cultures.

By contrast, the Sioux Indians nurse their babies for three or more years and rarely permit them to cry from hunger or other needs. Sioux parents feel that crying makes fearful children and poor adult hunters. As the infants grow older, the parents encourage frustration and anger because they believe that habitual outbursts of anger make their children strong and brave. Traditionally, Sioux adults have been perceived as aggressive, hostile to outsiders, and quarrelsome among themselves.

Social scientists state that many of the differences in human personality, behavior, and achievement are learned entirely from cultural influences; such differences are rooted in cultural tradition, opportunity, and reward and not in heredity. Numerous Air Force members of all cultures have experienced the trauma that results from a lack of opportunity and appropriate rewards. These experiences are critical elements of their learning patterns in the military culture, and they compound the tasks of Air Force leaders at all levels of command. Of course, opportunities are available in the Air Force, but leaders should help open doors to opportunity. Although everyone recognizes that the door of opportunity is marked push, some people do not know how to open the door, or their leaders may even block the way to the door. Nor are these experiences common only to minorities within the Air Force.

Leaders confront still another social reality when they become mediators in instances of perceived discrimination. Recently enacted social changes and learned behavior based on past cultural practices often cause people to misinterpret the attitudes, actions, and responses of others. Consequently, a person may perceive discrimination when another person is not aware that he or she is discriminating.

Perceived discrimination may not always be based on cultural factors; it may be perceived between rated vs. nonrated officers, noncommissioned officers vs. commissioned officers, male vs. female, or married personnel vs. single personnel. Nevertheless, a person feels the same whether the discrimination is real or imagined. Leaders must recognize that all victims of discrimination respond in similar behavior patterns. These patterns of behavior do not indicate that people are immature or that they are rocking the boat or fighting the system. They merely offer a leader another opportunity to improve relations with his subordinates.

For years, the dominant culture in American society sought to make "culturally different'' minorities more "American'' in their values, beliefs, and attitudes. This represents the traditional melting pot concept applied by the dominant culture to perpetuate its own values and beliefs. To become "true" Americans under this concept, minority groups were expected to abandon their cultural values and adopt the values and beliefs of the dominant cultural group. In recent years, however, minority cultures have demanded recognition of their rights to preserve and perpetuate their traditional values, interests, and beliefs. These demands have led to a new concept of social accommodation known as cultural pluralism. Under this concept, various minority groups maintain their cultural differences and traditions and still cooperate as relative equals in the economic, political, and social life of the dominant social group.

Switzerland provides a good example of cultural pluralism in practice. The Swiss people maintain a high degree of national unity although they have no national language and are divided in their religious beliefs. Protestants and Catholics speak German. French, and Italian and live in peace under the same government. Swiss citizens do not feel threatened by other citizens because of differences in ethnic or religious backgrounds; therefore, every citizen is free to give complete allegiance to the Swiss nation.

Major differences between American society and Swiss society are the attitudes, beliefs, and feelings of diverse cultural groups. In a large pluralistic society, such as that of the United States, various cultural groups often engage in struggles for influence, but these struggles do not reflect disloyalty to a common national government. National patriotism and loyalty to a common government do not require cultural uniformity. As has been proved in Switzerland and elsewhere, a country can tolerate differences in ethnic origins, nationality, language, religion, and customs and still live under a common government.

Numerous groups in the United States accept the idea of cultural pluralism, but American Indians and Mexican Americans (descendants of the earliest Mexican settlers in the Southwest) have expressed the strongest desire to retain their cultural independence. Their espousal of the idea may stem from the fact that their cultures predate the Anglo-Saxon culture in America, and they have maintained a degree of cultural autonomy despite considerable pressure. Many Americans derive a great deal of meaning from such holidays as Thanksgiving, Columbus Day, Washington's Birthday, and St. Patrick's Day, but people of minority cultures may not observe these holidays with the same feelings as other Americans. Members of various American Indian tribes, for example, frequently derive more significant meaning from their holy days and spiritual ceremonies (the Bear Dance of the Utes, the Green Corn Festival of the Senecas, the Snake Dance of the Hopis). Although some of the cultural values, beliefs, and interests of black Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians, and other minority groups differ in many respects from those of the dominant cultural group, people with diverse cultural backgrounds maintain their national pride as citizens of the United States. The military traditions of these and other groups have always reflected genuine American patriotism in spite of cultural differences.

Understanding the concept of cultural pluralism and accepting cultural differences are important elements of the "super vision" needed by modern Air Force leaders. Cultural pluralism is a significant characteristic of the Air Force environment. Frequently, however, individuals or groups are denied the right to express their cultural identity, or their peers and supervisors make them feel inferior because of different behavior and learning patterns based on cultural differences. These people tend to become frustrated and resentful over their perceived or real inability to gain acceptance, understanding, or recognition from other Air Force members. In most instances, individuals can cope with frustrations and injured feelings if they can release their emotions through alternate channels. These channels may be a supervisor who can listen and understand, a concerned and compassionate friend, or some activity that dissipates excess energy.

Considered in this context, a human being and his behavior can be compared to a teakettle full of water. If no heat is applied, the teakettle rests calmly and causes no concern. When heat warms the water, the kettle will remain relatively calm unless the water becomes too hot. But, if the water reaches the boiling point, the kettle will let off excess steam (frustration) through a safety valve (alternate channel). The valve even whistles to attract attention. However, if the safety valve fails to open and prevents the escape of excess steam, the kettle will continue to boil and finally overreact. If someone recognizes the problem and turns off the heat, the kettle will cool and be ready again to perform its function. On the other hand. continued heat will cause internal pressure to buildup until the kettle explodes. If the kettle has been overused, dropped, or otherwise abused, it probably will have a weak spot, and this will be the point at which it explodes. In their relationships with subordinates, super-visors should realize that people behave in much the same manner as teakettles. They either need safety valves (alternate channels) to vent their frustrations when pressure begins to increase or less heat when the water boils.

People who feel good about themselves, their jobs, and their relationships with others experience few, if any, frustrations. Unfortunately, all human beings, at one time or another, face personal difficulties or experience frustrations in their relationships with others. At such times, individuals may deviate from their normal behavior patterns, and group behavior may deteriorate unless safety valves are available. When supervisors understand their people and show a genuine interest in them, they recognize the boiling signs and apply the "super vision" that will prevent undesirable or disruptive behavior. Understanding human behavior does not imply approval of unacceptable behavior, but it does provide insights into the causes and cures for such behavior. Key elements of this understanding are respect for human dignity and the individual's right to express pride in his cultural heritage.

All Air Force members recognize the importance of preventive maintenance on aircraft, in their homes, in shops, and elsewhere, but all too often supervisors and other leaders overlook or forget the importance of preventive maintenance in their relations with people. Just as the pilot or the mechanic knows and respects his aircraft, a supervisor should know and respect his people, their problems, their frustrations, and their needs and should convey concern for them in person-to-person communications. Positive interest in people and genuine recognition of their efforts are primary obligations of effective leaders. Recognizing, understanding, and accepting human differences not only make the supervisor's task easier but also ensure more efficient accomplishment of the Air Force's mission.

Positive supervisory action produces positive human relations, and positive action begins with positive thought along the following lines.

The next step is to apply specific behavior that will facilitate positive relationships:

No individual or group of individuals can claim a monopoly on personal dignity and feelings. The red man's injuries are just as deep, the yellow man's fears are just as real, the black man's frustrations are just as great, and the white man's sadness just as strong as those of any other human being. Contentment and serenity are not rationed by color, dispersed by race, divided by sex, or determined by position. All people share the spectrum of human needs.

People are similar, and they are also quite different. But are they so different that they cannot see their similarities? Recognition of common bonds and emphasis on similarities can only lead to greater unity and harmony. This challenge obviously requires "super vision" from outstanding leaders throughout the Air Force.

Air Force Leadership and
Management Development Center
Air University


Chief Master Sergeant Willard P. Anderson, USAF (Ret), (B.S., University of Tampa) was a Management Consultant, Leadership Management Development Center, Hq Air University, at the time of his recent retirement. He presented seminars and workshops worldwide on effective leadership and management at all levels of command. He has lectured in all the Air University PME schools and helped develop phases of the Human Relations Education program. Mr. Anderson is Assistant Personnel Manager at ITT-Rayonier Corporation, Jessup, Georgia.

Senior Master Sergeant Thomas E. Wolfe (M.S., Troy State University) is on the faculty of the Air Force Leadership and Management Instructorsí Course, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Prior to this assignment to the Senior NCO Academy, he was a faculty member of the MAC NCO Academy and was one of the initial members of the Leadership and Management Development Center. He has lectured in all the Air University PME schools. Sergeant Wolfe is author of numerous articles used in Air Force PME and has aided in developing the Human Relations Education program.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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