Sexual assault and harassment—hereafter referred to as sexual violence—is a serious problem that affects the Army’s readiness and morale. Although the purpose of the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program is to protect victims and discipline abusers, it is not enough for prevention. SHARP is a reactive program that only addresses the symptoms, not the root causes.
If the true goal is to create an environment in which sexual violence cannot survive, a different approach is needed, one that prioritizes the health of the organization by strengthening its professional relationships.
Although the SHARP program has undergone positive changes, it has struggled in its efforts to prevent sexual violence. Despite giving the program new teeth to punish abusers and expanding tools to support victims, according to DoD, the military is still facing an increase in reports of sexual violence. While there have been calls for innovative ideas to resolve these threats, the SHARP program focuses on symptoms rather than the disease.
The problem is that the Army relies almost exclusively on reactive, fear-based responses to SHARP-related incidents. Annual briefings for soldiers outline punitive consequences. Disciplinary councils publish quarterly reports distributed to Army leaders detailing punitive actions taken that keep the fear fresh. Army leaders and SHARP representatives aggravate the issue when they convey statistics of sexual violence and its effect on the force.
However, the increase in reports of sexual violence suggests that these tactics are not effective. Furthermore, according to recent studies by Maastricht University in the Netherlands and the University of Illinois, the efficacy of scare tactics in deterrence and behavior change is still up for debate. While threats and warnings bring attention to a problem, this is not a beneficial strategy for positive behavior change.
Focus on Strengths
By primarily addressing the symptoms, the Army creates fear, and the potential for real change is lacking. Rather than aiming to eradicate the issue, the Army treats sexual violence as a problem to manage or reduce. This perspective does not offer hope for a future devoid of sexual violence. If goals drive the means, then maybe the Army’s goal in terms of SHARP is wrong. What if the focus on the problem is the problem? Perhaps the Army needs to reframe the language of what it really wants.
Studies by Naval Postgraduate School researchers highlight the importance of language in how people communicate goals and take action to achieve results. The language used to frame questions often influences the answers. When goals focus on fixing problems, Army leaders will only discover more problems. However, by using language that frames the inquiry of goals in terms of strength and innovation, leaders can discover solutions that build toward an ideal future.
To understand the importance of language that focuses on strengths and its impact on choices and reality, consider the analogy of lawn care. To cultivate a healthy lawn in the face of spreading weeds, one should use methods to strengthen the grass through regular care such as proper fertilization and a good watering cycle, using poison only as a spot treatment. This approach requires careful attention to attacking weeds, but allows for stronger, healthier grass to grow and eventually overcome the weeds, rather than weakening the grass with excessive use of weedkiller.
Too often, problem-solving methods prioritize deficit-based approaches that seek to punish undesirable behavior (the symptoms of a disease) and therefore do little to define and promote the ideal behavior that would prevent the disease. By reframing goals to focus on developing ideal behavior, Army leaders can take an appreciative approach that strengthens positive aspects, encourages growth and leads to more effective solutions in the long run.
This approach requires a shift in focus toward building and nurturing strengths and creating ideal conditions, with problem-solving methods serving as spot treatments rather than the sole focus.
The aim of preventing sexual violence in the Army requires a shift in focus from simply punishing bad behavior to cultivating positive behaviors and practices that foster healthy, professional relationships between men and women.
Appreciative inquiry, a methodology for organizational goal-setting developed in the 1980s by David Cooperrider, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, is a powerful tool that can be used to identify and appreciate positive behaviors and practices within an organization. By inquiring into an organization’s strengths, employees can expand their capacity and release their potential, creating a positive environment of respectful behavior.
The appreciative approach follows a methodology called the 4-D model. First, employees discover the strengths of the organization through interviews and small-group dialogue. Then, they dream of what the organization could look like in its ideal state as it relates to the topic. Next, the employees design outcomes and initiatives to achieve their vision. Finally, they deliver their vision by implementing their proposed changes.
A case study of the appreciative approach in action is the work of consultant Marjorie Schiller, who was hired by the beauty products company Avon Mexico to address the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace in the late 1990s. After failing to achieve any positive results using classic problem-solving, Schiller and her firm turned to Cooperrider’s appreciative approach.
By incorporating the appreciative methodology, Schiller and her team modified their goal from decreasing sexual harassment to promoting high-quality cross-gender relationships within Avon Mexico. The outcome was nothing short of dramatic as, according to Schiller, Avon Mexico transformed from experiencing issues of sexual harassment to being recognized as one of the best places in Mexico for women to work.
To prevent sexual violence in the Army, the traditional problem-solving method must be replaced by the appreciative approach. By inquiring into the ideal behaviors Army leaders and soldiers want for their future, they can create a positive environment that fosters healthy, professional relationships between men and women.
Building on the case study of Avon Mexico, the following two initiatives propose new ideas for updating the SHARP program and preventing sexual violence in the Army.
First, Army leaders should stop using fear tactics and instead highlight the organization’s strengths in confronting sexual violence. The use of fear tactics could retraumatize survivors and create collective guilt, which inhibits good discussion. By highlighting the organization’s strengths, survivors may feel safe enough to come forward and seek necessary resources.
Second, Army leaders should launch an appreciative inquiry into the interpersonal and environmental factors fundamental to building strong, professional relationships in the workplace. The inquiry would utilize a version of the appreciative inquiry 4-D model, and service members from subordinate units and directorates would form coalitions to manage this inquiry. The coalitions would seek out peak experiences of professional male-female relationships, uncover the root factors that enabled those professional relationships and facilitate collaboration to build a broader vision and associated outcomes and initiatives aimed at developing these positive behaviors in the force at large.
This inquiry should occur at every installation and in every state for the Army National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve, allowing for firsthand engagement in the method and creating greater inclusivity by inviting numerous service members from within the organization to assist in the appreciative inquiry.
Sexual violence poses a serious problem for Army readiness and morale. However, the existing SHARP program has not been effective in creating positive change, as it focuses on symptoms rather than root causes. To prioritize the health of the organization, the Army should adopt a different approach that fosters healthy, professional relationships between men and women.
This can be achieved by reframing the language of what the Army wants, utilizing an appreciative approach to building and nurturing strengths and launching an inquiry into the factors that contribute to strong, professional relationships.
By taking these steps, the Army can build a future characterized by respectful behavior between men and women.
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Sgt. Maj. John Sim is the operations sergeant major for the Utah Army National Guard’s 97th Aviation Troop Command. In his 23 years of service, he has served in a variety of leadership assignments. He deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He holds a doctorate in organizational development from Fielding Graduate University, California.