Axon - Empowering Squadron Commanders to have Difficult Conversations - Ep8 Published May 1, 2023 Air University Teaching and Learning Center The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied in this podcast are solely those of the speakers and do not necessarily represent the views of Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency. Transcript: Axon Podcast with Maj Evgenia Peduzzi Megan J. Hennessey Hello, I am Doctor Megan Hennessey. I'm the Director of the Air University Teaching and Learning Center and today, so happy to be here with the Axon podcast with Major Evgenia Peduzzi. Major Peduzzi is a career Intel officer with a background in threat analysis, ISR operations, and support to flying operations. She's also spent time on multiple deployments as a cultural advisor and Russian language interpreter and is an active member of the Language Enabled Airman Program. Our Air University AFCLC partners will be happy to hear that. Most recently, Major Peduzzi completed a master's degree program in Strategic Communications from George Mason University, focusing on understanding mechanics of organizational inclusion and how this could empower the Air Force to accelerate change. Currently, she serves in the Strategic Communications Division under the Secretary of the Air Force for Public Affairs. Welcome Eve. Evgenia Peduzzi Yes, Hi. So happy to be here. Megan J. Hennessey Thank you so much. So let's start off with talking about what's most important. You are a graduate of my Alma Mater, George Mason University. Evgenia Peduzzi Yes, yes. What an awesome program. Megan J. Hennessey Tell us what drove you to complete that program in particular. Evgenia Peduzzi Yes, it was an opportunity offered by the Air Force. It was a fellowship, and it was focused on strategic communications and invited officers outside of the Public Affairs career field, to join and gain some knowledge about communication, so we can better integrate whatever those skills were in our own career fields. So, It was a program that the Air Force offered, that I applied and competed for and had the incredible opportunity to participate in. Megan J. Hennessey Well, congratulations. Tell us how that program connects to your work as an Intel officer, if you can. Evgenia Peduzzi Well, sure. I think that the overall intent is to help Intel officers consider how we shape our messaging. and you know, one of the challenges with Intel is oftentimes we work in specific stove pipes specifically because of the classification levels that are available, and so we don't immediately connect with public affairs or communicate very openly about the campaigns or efforts that we're trying to undertake. Meanwhile, our adversaries are certainly using strategic communications as a type of weapon and so I think the intent is to help our side better understand how communication works and how we can better apply communication skills to further our warfighting capacity and capability. Megan J. Hennessey And I believe that you completed your thesis on difficult conversations in the Air Force and is it specific to the Squadron command level? Evgenia Peduzzi Yes, it is. So, for my research, I took a little bit of a different approach, although I really appreciate the operation link between public affairs and Intel, my other passion is very much in the people and the people domain and so what I wanted to understand was how do we foster inclusion in our organizations in the Air Force and across the DoD. And so for my study, what I did was go back to the field to talk to our most, you know, most relevant level of command when it comes to difficult conversations in my opinion, and that was squadron commanders and I wanted to find out what types of difficult conversations are they having in these last five years as we're witnessing all of these social events, these DoD events and what types of challenges are they facing? And how are they dealing with them? What are the lessons learned? So that's what I ended up doing my study on. Megan J. Hennessey I know our listeners can appreciate how difficult it is to craft working definitions and inclusion criteria with research, and I suspect that was maybe your first hurdle you had to jump. So what is your working definition of a difficult conversation in the context of the military? Evgenia Peduzzi Yeah, I appreciate you clarifying that. And I also had to go back to the training manuals first and foremost for the Air Force. Things like the Air Force Squadron Commander course and training manuals, and in those documents it labeled some difficult conversations as topics of death, serious injury, sexual assault, mental health, violence, discrimination and any other stressful life events, illness, finance and personal conflict, etc. I also looked at Gregory's framework of crucial conversations. There's a book, crucial conversations, and it defines the crucial conversations as ones where opinions vary, stakes are high, emotions run strong and outcomes matter greatly to one or more parties, but most importantly. Because this was a qualitative study, I wanted to know what squadron commanders perceived as difficult conversations, so I gave them this overview as these are starting points, but most importantly, what do you perceive as difficult and let's talk about it. Megan J. Hennessey And you had an amazing reception, so you had 25 participants from across O-4, O-5, and O-6 ranks. And I know you also had to actually turn volunteer participants away, which is practically unheard of. What do you think makes your research so interesting to Air Force officers? Why did they want help you? Evgenia Peduzzi Yeah, that was a fascinating turn of events. It took me one day to get all of my volunteers. And like you said, some I just could not, did not have capacity to interview, but every single one of them said thank you for inviting me because we're not talking about it, and I really wish we were. I think, what it comes down to is difficult conversations are just a prevalent hot topic at every level of leadership and at this time, there's not a lot of resources or official mandatory or structured training that empowers difficult conversations. So a lot of leaders and this just not squadron commanders, at all levels, are trying to figure out how to do it and are having mixed results and are eager to share their experience to help the next generations of leaders. Megan J. Hennessey I suspect you, just from your own personal experience as an officer, that maybe I'm putting words in your mouth here, I fully admit. But maybe, you would have appreciated someone giving you that opportunity in your history? Evgenia Peduzzi Sure, absolutely, everyone encounters moments of difficult conversations, and I think what's interesting is, everyone starts from whatever their starting point is. I think everyone's got some sort of strengths and weaknesses, some people are more intuitive in the realm of difficult conversations, emotional intelligence, Others have intuitions and other areas. The challenge is for officers is, if you do not have this training and you do not come prebuilt with intuition, you're in the school of Hard Knocks and whether this is an experience I personally had or other officers have witnessed who were and and really all leaders enlisted and officer. It's fascinating to watch and learn of what works and what doesn't, but I think we can do better as an Air Force preparing our leaders because there is quite a lot of science to how difficult conversations can work better, and we can empower those leaders in in our ranks. By giving it to them instead of just letting people figure it out on their own. Megan J. Hennessey Yes, thank you. I am all about what you just said about the science and you clearly contributed to that discourse with this study. I think especially because of your robust sample size and the characteristics of your participants, so they actually represented more racial and ethnic diversity. And the total force or the field grade officer ranks, can you tell us more about that? How did that happen? Evgenia Peduzzi Yeah, I it certainly was an aspiration of mine to represent as many groups and as many voices as possible. I will say that my study did not necessarily sort for a specific demographics, but once I had the initial sample of participants and I had more people. That I could. Interview I allowed voices to come through in that sample that I could examine specifically so that we could represent this Air Force that I think we're aiming for versus the one that we're, you know, currently currently in the state that we're in. Megan J. Hennessey So you mentioned earlier that you mostly used interviews, was that your sole source of data collection or did you use anything else? Evgenia Peduzzi Yes, that was the primary source and it was 26 hours of, qualitative data, very rich context of squadron commanders talking about their experience and where they struggled the most and what they learned in their time and command. Megan J. Hennessey That's awesome. Let's dive into some of the findings and your analysis. Some of the critical incidents identified by your participants as topics of difficult conversations. So, their airmen are coming to them to talk about these things. You had a few and some that really stood out to me, especially because you noted them as social versus purely military topics, were the death of George Floyd in 2020, the Roe V Wade reversal decision in 2022, and then, of course, tragically, the Uvalde TX school shooting in 2022. Can you share more about what popped up around these critical incidents and why you think they became trending topics of interest? Evgenia Peduzzi Yes, so first to the, you know the top three findings of most difficult conversations that commanders had in these last five years, were suicide and suicidal ideations, sexual assault and then overall topics of racial injustice and specifically murder of George Floyd. And I'll start there, mainly because that was a big challenge for a lot of squadron commanders and not because they didn't want to address the issues or didn't believe in supporting and the importance of talking about racial injustice. But it was because when this event happened and General Goldfein made that, you know amazing stand talking about what he believed was right in, in the situation of murder of George Floyd, there was a call to all squadron commanders to direct these difficult conversations and lead these difficult conversations with their airmen. And even though there were talking points and general information sent to commanders to have these conversations, the how was the part that was very challenging. Now different people have different experiences and perspectives on the topic, and some had support from friends, family members and or personal experiences that they could speak to when discussing discrimination, racial justice. But 56% of my sample were self identified white members for the Air Force and Squadron commanders and oftentimes for that demographic it was very difficult. They felt that their voice was perhaps overrepresented or was not the right voice to bring these topics up, and so they struggled in finding the words. However, in all the participants in my study who were commanders during that time did address the issue and what they learned was that ‘the how’ became easier as they practiced it, Not only because they had the opportunity to speak about it, but also because their airman gave them incredible perspective and shared very personal, very vulnerable stories that changed perspectives and empowered commanders to continue speaking about it. So that is the murder of George Floyd piece. The other topics were issues that commanders felt they had to address because of how they perceived their members to take in this information. But the overall message there was ‘we want to talk about it’, ‘We're not sure if we're saying the right thing’ and it's very difficult to speak on emotional topics when there is no guidance or leadership oversight or empowerment and there was always a concern of am I going to get in trouble if I speak out of turn if I get emotional? If I say the wrong thing? And so I think that the collective message there is, one, the messages or topics of social discourse are not going away, so commanders must practice and prepare themselves for having these, facilitating these discussions. And that two, these leaders need to be supported and empowered at all levels. So senior leadership must know and guide and backup members, when they speak about this. But also there has to be a sense of collective grace. Whether it's grace from the member who is speaking or the audience is receiving, because when we try these for the first time, mistakes happen and it's not malicious, it's just part of the process. But that grace can help smooth the rough parts and help the difficult conversations happen. Megan J. Hennessey I have to say I, don't think I've used or heard that phrase in a military context before, but it makes perfect sense to me—“collective grace”—with something so challenging. Thank you for describing it that way. It's very powerful. Evgenia Peduzzi Yeah, I would add that what's fascinating from the difficult conversations that these commanders faced - All of them were in the human domain. All of them required soft skills, and I think that's an important message to our senior leaders as we prepare to compete in this in this, in this new age with peer competition. These commanders are not talking about mission challenges, they're not talking about resourcing, and although those absolutely exist, what takes the most emotional bandwidth and energy, is the human domain. And so it's critical that as we prepare commanders for the next generation fight, that we don't just address the systems, the networks, we also address these soft skills and build competence in emotional intelligence so that these human domain issues can be addressed. Megan J. Hennessey Yes. And one of your findings I think goes really hand in hand with what you just said and the recommendation that you really need to practice. 64% of your participants acknowledge that fear was constantly on their minds when it came to difficult conversations and that they were afraid of saying something wrong or making one mistake and being out. Can you share more about that? Evgenia Peduzzi Yes, yes. So thank you for bringing that up. The top challenge that came out of my study was that fear was the hardest thing for most members and it's hard to hear that. However, I also think that in some ways this is good news, because fear is something that we can directly address through training, education, and support. One thing I think is important is that when we talk about fear, we have to take the element of shame out of it. There was an interesting correlation between fear and shame and that, first of all, fear was expressed across all demographics, and it usually dealt with talking about a group that was not your own group. So men talking about women, you know and whatever it is, the racial issues, the sexuality issues, it was always the fear of saying the wrong thing across the those domains. And oftentimes, shame came sounded like this – ‘Well, you know, if you can't do the right thing, you shouldn't be in this job’. ‘If you cannot address this, then you know you need to go do some more work’ and the reality is like that will never help individuals have less fear, so I think one of the first steps dealing with fear and in this education realm is we have to stop judging people for having fear. It's a natural reaction when trying new things. And what we do need to do is provide perspective because oftentimes giving people perspective and letting them know that they're supported if they try new things, that helps ease the fear or at least temper it enough for the courage part to come in for the member to have the difficult conversations. Some of the other challenges were disbelief and leading as ‘an other’. Disbelief, meaning that members didn't believe other members were going through an experience and then leading as an other. It was leading as a minority and/or leading as a name-a- demographic in a group of members who had different demographic statistics and both of those also fall into the category. This could be a perspective training opportunity and so if we could just provide insights to others about why one might not or want, why someone might go through an experience, it might help the disbelief portion and giving perspective to leaders about the fact that everyone struggles to speak about difficult conversations, might help empower those conversations more frequently in the future. Megan J. Hennessey Absolutely. And I would be remiss if I didn't make a plug to the Air University Leader Development Course because 36% of your participants were graduates of that course and some of the quotes that you shared from them was that “it was the best course I've taken in my career” and another was grateful for “finally teaching the human domain,” and then this last one is really interesting, a participant, also a graduate of the Leader Development Course, said “discussion of empathy, something I have not really gotten previously in training.” So we’ve got our findings, you've shared some of your key trends and things that were on these participants’ minds, challenges that they were facing in their leadership, what do we do about it from a military education perspective? Obviously we have the Leader Development Course, but what else, you know, for our listeners who are joining us from military education organizations, what can they do at perhaps even the individual level, armed with your research? Evgenia Peduzzi Sure, So I think the bottom line is our Air Force and I would venture to say that DoD really needs to make an investment into Emotional intelligence training and difficult conversations training at all levels of accessions and the good news about this is that there is already existing curriculum like the Leader Development course that you mentioned, that focuses specifically in that human in that emotional domain. And for example on a Leader Development course, I would contend that this should be a mandatory course, not a unit funded course that all commanders get an opportunity to go to so that they are empowered to have these difficult conversations. There are other efforts across the Air Force that I've connected with during my research and advocating for this topic, I know that at the Air Force Academy there is a Master Sergeant who leads the human weapons system course teaching cadets, you know about the human domain, and there's lots of grassroots efforts as well that recognize emotional intelligence as critical, by the way, not just for you know, not just for knowledge for knowledge sake, but specifically for cultivating stronger teams, cultivating innovation, for boosting our retention numbers. And let's not forget the critical realm of diversity and inclusion training. All of these soft skills directly feed into these skills or these areas and I would argue, boost our overall lethality as a force and when it comes to making this recommendation actionable, Well, I would argue that all the building blocks are in place. We have material and by the way, industry has lots of prepared material on the topic as well and what needs to be done now is it needs to be resources and scaled so that emotional intelligence training and difficult conversations training, is a present at all levels of accessions. So, that's the bottom line, When our Chief of Staff calls us to bring forward the best talent, regardless of their background and create environments where all can reach their potential so that we can fight the fight, I think the first step is resourcing this emotional intelligence training and making it a reality so that we can create a common core of understanding and language on the topic of emotional support. And that way things like vulnerability, perspective taking, authenticity, grace, self-awareness - Those are not some fuzzy optional things and are warfighting capabilities that people take and leaders take seriously and also apply To ensure that Members feel included and effective in their organizations. Megan J. Hennessey Thanks, Eve. That's really helpful. And you've given us a great framework to consider this through and from. I have to ask a tough question. You know you are now a subject matter expert. I'm sure you're aware, as our listeners are, of lots of debates and negative feelings around woke culture in the military and critiques about how we've lost the war part of warfighting, and we shouldn't be focusing on things like emotional intelligence—we should be focusing more on how to win wars. What would you say to those people? Evgenia Peduzzi Yeah, I would say that these skills are a fundamental to human interaction, to cultivating connection and what that translates for the Air Force and the DoD is, lethality. You know, we often talk about how our airmen, our most capable Air Force warfighting asset. And our Chief of Staff calls us to accelerate change, which is absolutely necessary, but you cannot accelerate change and prepare for next generation fight and recognize that our airmen are most capable asset without investing into this, this human weapon system. So, you know, unfortunately the days of or the days of avoiding these topics are are gone like these topics will be topics for the next generation of airmen serving, and so our leaders cannot avoid them. I would also say that retention is a critical topic right now and there are populations of Americans who would love to serve, who are unsure of whether or not the military is the right fit for them. I think that cultivating skills that help members understand each other and work better together is only a positive for the war fighting capacity of the force. So I suppose fostering emotional intelligence difficult conversation capacity, is not wokeness. I would argue that that is just basic skills that one needs to be effective to form teams that are lethal. Megan J. Hennessey Thank you. That was so well said and it reminds me of the Rand study that just came out about the relationship between neurodiversity and neurodiverse members, strengths, and impacts on national security. And I think, if I'm hearing you correctly, it's a similar argument here for emotional intelligence and communication skills. You can't just know how to push a trigger, right? You've got to—or pull a trigger… There you go, see? I'm probably going to get critiqued for not being military enough as well. But you can't just know those things anymore, you have to be well-rounded. You have to, as you said, keep an eye on the human domain because wars are fought by humans and so I really appreciate all of your research. What's next? Are you going to continue data collection? Evgenia Peduzzi Well, I'm make a little plug for a program that I'm currently part of, it's called LEVEL up and it is led through the A26 enterprise by General Lauderback. And this program is made of information warfare professionals across the Air Force, with the focus on discussing diversity and inclusion and fostering diversity inclusion or diversity inclusion accessibility and equity initiatives, across all realms of our organizations and the floor. And so I'm very excited to be part of this cohort. And as part of this cohort, I am working on a project to continue the efforts of my research and develop a difficult conversations toolkit that could then be disseminated to members who would like to have these conversations are not sure where to start. I would like it to be bite sized and something that's easily digestible and quickly read thru and I would love to share this with as broad of an audience as finds it useful. And I think this is my effort to contribute to that curriculum or training materials on emotional intelligence and difficult conversations that can empower the force. Megan J. Hennessey I just wrote a note about how we need to invite you back for a faculty development session using your toolkit. Thank you, that's exciting. Evgenia Peduzzi Yes Megan J. Hennessey Thank you so much, Major Evgenia Peduzzi for joining us today. Is there anything else you would like to add? Evgenia Peduzzi Well, I thank you for the opportunity to speak with you and the audience today and I also would love to invite collaboration opportunities, if there are others out there who are thinking the same thing and wondering how they can contribute. Please reach out and let's work together. I know there are lots of people who are having similar ideas and the faster we band together and share resources, the more effective this would be in cultivating lethality in our Air Force.