Happiness Improved Performance on Nuclear Submarine

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Summary: Changing the work culture on a Navy submarine improved crew happiness and made dramatic improvements in their performance.

One hundred and thirty-five crew worked on the Navy nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Santa Fe.  This kind of sub can stay at sea for months without needing any fuel because  it has its own nuclear reactor. They do need to re-provision with food, medicine and related items periodically.

The Santa Fe had a reputation of having the worst performance, the lowest morale and the lowest retention of all the Navy's nuclear submarines.  There were often delays for launches, and repairs could be repeated multiple times.  Of the 135 crew members in one period, only three decided to re-enlist. The captain quit, so a new guy was brought in.

What he saw was that crew had been criticized too much, and their sense of control over their jobs had been whittled down to the point that they didn't find satisfaction in their work. One of the first changes the captain made was to change the use of the word 'they' to 'we', meaning that crew members couldn't blame their peers by saying, 'They didn't do their job.' Using 'we' emphasized that all of them were on the same team. He also gave them back more autonomy or control over their jobs.

Another thing that changed was that the captain didn't want any crew members to simply follow orders without thinking for themselves. If they thought something was wrong, they were to speak up and not simply follow instructions blindly. Another new practice implemented was the three name rule. When crew introduced the inspectors to the ship, they were told to say their own names, the name of the inspector and the name of the vessel every time. This exercise generated some sense of pride in the crew they did not have before.

The result of these changes was that the crew was able to pass an inspection of their vessel by senior officers with no problems. Previously, they had done poorly in the same exercises under a different captain where the culture did not treat the crew well. Their new rating by the senior officers put them at the above average rating, from previously being at the very bottom.

This very dramatic improvement was attributed to shifts in the culture that come from the new captain.  The captain said these changes actually were focused on making the crew happier, rather than only improving their job skills.

Some research studies have shown that happy workers tend to be more focused, more productive and make fewer errors. The captain said it is his job to make the work environment happy, so the crew can be happy and they can be more attentive, smarter and more responsive. This is a very different approach than criticizing, dominating or using force to motivate.

After the work culture was changed and the crew performed much better, 33 crew members chose to re-enlist. During the last phase under the old captain just three did.  Also, eventually 10 commanding officers were produced from the new crew, which is more than the typical number.

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Karla April Moreno

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