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Balancing Military and Civilian Styles

By Kathleen Brill
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, July 19, 2004; 4:50 PM

Before your first day at a new civilian job, or even before interviewing for one, it pays to be sensitive to the nuances of civilians' communication and work styles. Politeness in the military world may be misinterpreted as a mild insult to an unsuspecting civilian, says Glovinia Harris, program manager for the Naval Security Group Activity's transition program at Fort Meade, Md.

"We're going to have to drop some of our 'yes sirs' and 'no ma'ams,'" she says. "It may work well in a military culture ... in a civilian sector, the person who's interviewing you may think, 'Gee ... do I look old? Why are they saying that to me?'"


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Harris advises personnel to seek "civilian mentors" to remind them how to interact outside a military environment.

Remember that civilians aren't so "mission"-focused. They may ask questions before agreeing to suggestions, or they may decide to deviate slightly from instructions. "Now you've got to learn the civilian game," Harris says.

"You have to realize that you're not in the military anymore – you just can't bark orders out to people, and you can't punish people the way you would in the military," says Derrick Dortch, career counselor at Georgetown University. "That's sometimes hard for people to deal with, especially those coming out of certain military occupational specialties."

A former Marine, Dortch says he has to remind himself that conflicts at work are best handled with sensitivity toward peoples' feelings. He remembers one civilian workplace meeting that ranged from arguing to crying, and he thought to himself "this would never happen in the Marines!"

Teamwork is one aspect of work life shared by civilian and military worlds. It's a concept most military people keenly understand.

Assessing the needs and expectations of coworkers will improve understanding of how companies work, recommends retired Air Force Col. Tim Davidson.

"Know what your part of the puzzle is," Davidson says. Management in the civilian world places more emphasis on developing relationships in order to establish influence. Many people leaving the military already have the building blocks for developing strong work relationships in the civilian world, he says.

"Some people have this feeling that 'all I know is the service,' but that's not all you know," Davidson says.

Editor's note: This article by Kathleen Brill, was first acquired by washingtonpost.com on February 24, 2003.


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