Skip to main content

To Gain the Most from the Defence Workforce, Tap Into Their Agency

Traditionally, career planning for many military officers has been fairly simple: junior officers in combat specialties are placed on a pathway to prepare them for senior command positions – even though most will never serve in those roles. It’s a one-size-fits all approach to career management that has helped ensure services can select the best of its officer corps to command theatres or services. However, this approach can cause the service to miss opportunities to continue to benefit from its people. Officers whose passions and talents lie in being operators, technical specialists, or instructors often have limited options to continue in those roles. Many in this situation leave when they still have value that they want to give.

This example mirrors a finding from Deloitte’s 2023 Global Human Capital Trends report, workers want self-determination in their careers – “meaningful choice and influence over the work they do (and how, when, and where they work)”1 . It is a part of the trend we call Harnessing Worker Agency, and it is not a new development in civilian or military contexts. It is, however, taking on additional importance across many different types of organisations in the midst of tight labour markets and an unpredictable, rapidly changing world.

The Challenge


In this time of global instability, the British military is struggling to maintain the workforce it needs today and in the future. At the end of 2022, the UK was approximately 2% below its targeted end strength 2 , with additional challenges emerging in the British Army this year 3 . This challenge is echoed in other allied militaries and the economy at large:

  • The US Army missed its 2022 recruiting goal by 25% 4.
  • Australia is trying to increase its uniformed personnel by nearly 30% by 2040 5.
  • Nearly 40% of all employees during the current “Great Resignation” were thinking about leaving their jobs at the beginning of 2022 6.

Much of the considerable effort to address these challenges is connected to improving pay and benefits (such as the ongoing Haythornthwaite Review of Armed Forces Incentivisation (HRAFI)). Though important, pay and benefits alone will not enable the UK to build and maintain the defence workforce it needs in the 21st century.

Harnessing Worker Agency


Workers’ ability to exercise their agency in the workplace is a significant factor in building and maintaining a fully engaged and effective workforce. As our Global Trends report points out, 84% of executives surveyed cited worker agency as either important or very important to their organisation’s success, even though only 17% feel they are very ready to address the issue 7. The impact of agency on workplace culture, which can have 10.4 times more impact on attrition than compensation 8, drives this importance. Further, agency and culture also impact well-being, physical health, and productivity – all of which are factors in military readiness.

In practice, human capital and career management policies provide excellent opportunities for organisations to harness worker agency and harvest its benefits. These opportunities fall into two main lines of effort: aligning values and shared decision making.

Aligning Values


One lever that has been increasing in importance is aligning an organisation’s “values, strategies, policies, and actions with the personal values of their workers (individually and collectively), and with the values of the larger society” 9. For the militaries of democratic societies, this alignment has long been in place. Human capital policies provide an excellent venue for extending this alignment in small and large ways that are meaningful to personnel in defence. Example actions include:

  • Commitment to continue to build an inclusive environment across UK defence, one that reflects the reality and culture from which the UK draws its defence workforce (this includes a range of actions from strengthening protections against sexual harassment to adjusting hair standards to better support service personnel of colour)
  • Creating and maintaining a workplace culture where personnel of any rank can call out behaviour that is inconsistent with the stated values of the UK MOD (building on the progress of the UK MOD’s anti-bullying hotline and bystander training 10)
  • Identifying and removing regulations that are out of date or irrelevant to modern militaries (such the US military relaxing its rules on tattoos11)
  • Feedback loops where service personnel have a vehicle to contribute constructive feedback to their commander (an idea that the US Army has experimented with multiple times since the 1990s 12)

Each of the examples above can make significant progress in harnessing agency without impacting operations or chain of command. Some are literally cosmetic yet can reap significant rewards in building engagement and commitment in the workforce. In addition to strengthening worker agency, these efforts can strengthen good order and discipline within the force by clarifying expectations, empowering personnel to support those expectations, and strengthening accountability for maintaining those expectations. This empowerment makes each link in the chain of command stronger.

Shared Decision Making


The other aspect of harnessing worker agency is shared decision making. The key is to define which aspects of the UK Defence lived experience are realistic for shared decision making and which are not, then follow through on making decisions together. Career management and professional development provide especially rich opportunities for implementing shared decision making and increasing the agency extended to Defence personnel. Examples of these opportunities include:

  • Creating more flexible career development pathways for both service personnel and civilians, allowing them to select the career fields and training they want to pursue, within a range defined by the good of the service
  • Creating more flexibility in level of commitment with respect to deployment and transfer, creating additional options for service personnel that are somewhat between being in the regular and reserve forces (such as the US Navy’s Career Intermission Program)
  • Application of virtual and hybrid working technologies to introduce some location flexibility for non-operational assignments (a move that could potentially reduce costs related to moving personnel and their families)

As an example of this in practice today, Deloitte has been working with the British Army via Programme CASTLE to deliver agency in career planning by creating greater transparency and objectivity around career information, empowering the people of the British Army to have greater agency in their careers. In the US, Deloitte has been piloting programs with select U.S. Army civilian and military career field proponents to deliver transparency and predictability in career planning, with the goal of providing these workforces greater agency in creating and driving career progression.

As mentioned above, a key success factor is carefully selecting where shared decisions will support the overall mission – and where it will not. As stated in this year’s trends study: “It’s a two-way collaboration, not a free-for-all…. What’s needed is an open, respectful relationship that gives workers meaningful, mutually beneficial choices and brings them into the decision-making process on issues that touch the workforce.”13

Applying in Defence


Though harnessing worker agency may defy military stereotypes, it is fully consistent with military reality. As shown above, there are many places in defence in the UK and beyond that are already leveraging worker agency as a force for unlocking potential. This is consistent with our research, which indicates that this trend has been emerging over several years.

To meet the combined challenges of an increasingly unstable world and a shortage of people willing and able to take on a career in defence, military leaders in the UK, US, and other allied militaries have declared that all options are on the table. Harnessing worker agency should be a part of those options. Like organisations across many sectors, harnessing work agency is an important tool to build and maintain the UK’s defence workforce while benefiting from the full value its people can provide.



[1] Sue Cantrell, Karen Weisz, Michael Griffiths, Kraig Eaton, “Harnessing worker agency: Organizations drive value and strengthen their relationship with workers by embracing rising worker influence,” Deloitte Insights online, 2023 Global human capital trends | Deloitte Insights, 9 January 2023.

[2] “UK defence personnel statistics,” UK Parliament, UK defence personnel statistics - House of Commons Library ( ,23 August 2022.

[3] Sean Rayment, “Desperate army chiefs tell sacked soldiers 'we need you back': Troops fired for fighting, theft or smoking cannabis are considered for rehire - only drug dealers and heroin addicts would be barred,” MailOnline, soldiers-need-back.html, 25 February 2023.

[4] Jeremy Kofsky and Kael Weston, “The US military is losing recruits. Here’s how to change that,” The Boston Globe online, The US military is losing recruits. Here’s how to change that. (, 20 February 2023.

[5] Julian Kerr, “Australia to boost military personnel strength by 30%,” Janes online, Australia to boost military personnel strength by 30% (, 10 March 2022.

[6] Donald Sull, Charles Sull, and Ben Zweig, “Toxic culture is driving the great resignation,” MIT Sloan Management Review, 11 January 2022, as quoted by Cantrell, Weisz, Griffiths, Eaton, 9 January 2023.

[7] Cantrell, Weisz, Griffiths, Eaton, 9 January 2023.

[8] Sull, Sull, and Zweig, as quoted by Cantrell, Weisz, Griffiths, Eaton, 9 January 2023.

[9] Cantrell, Weisz, Griffiths, Eaton, 9 January 2023.

[10] “Anti-bullying helpline to be set up for armed service personnel,” The Guardian online, Anti-bullying helpline to be set up for armed service personnel | Military | The Guardian, 11 July 2020.

[11] Thomas Novelly, “Some Neck and Hand Tattoos OK for Airmen and Guardians Under New Policy Aimed at Helping Recruiting,”, Some Neck and Hand Tattoos OK for Airmen and Guardians Under New Policy Aimed at Helping Recruiting |, 2 March 2023.

[12] Maj. Carlos De Castro Pretelt, U.S. Army, “The Impact of Subordinate Feedback in Officer Development,” Military Review online, The Impact of Subordinate Feedback in Officer Development Assessments, Feedback, and Leadership (, March-April 2021.

[13] Ibid.

Did you find this useful?

Thanks for your feedback

If you would like to help improve further, please complete a 3-minute survey