Imagine yourself right out of AIT and into your first unit. You've not been been away from home or your family much and about 6 months after joining you are now getting settled into your first unit amongst people from places you've never visited with different values, perspectives, and beliefs. You don't really know what your job is at the unit because what you do day to day is much different than what your job title and training tell you should be doing. Is this really what the Army is? "I thought I'd be doing more of what I signed up to do"... I got this paper that tells me to be on time, stay out of trouble, do good at PT. I guess this is an "On the Job Training type thing". Fast forward a year and your going to the promotion board. "Well it would have been nice to know I was on this board with more than a few days notice Sarge! Living the dream!" Your leader then tells you, here sign these just match the date on the front and don't mess this up, it's for your promotion board packet! As you fill out 8 months worth of counseling forms, you think "typical, it would have been nice to see some of this before now..... oh wait, what is this..... you put in here the time I forgot to take the keys to the motorpool?! That happened 6 months ago!" Great, I'm sure that won't set me up for failure in the board tomorrow...
Can you relate? What happened to this Soldier? Someone getting set back because their leader failed to do their job?....
How does that make you feel? That's probably why you're reading this so let's get at it. How to conduct a counseling session and fill out a DA form 4856 in the Army.
What are your questions about counseling? If I don't cover them, leave a comment. What are the secrets of the counseling form? What is a positive counseling? How do I adapt the way I counsel to different Soldiers? Why is it important for EVERY Soldier to be counseled regularly? Why doesn't my leader counsel me? Are there tools to make counseling easier and more standardized?
If you are interested in any of these questions then stick around for this NCOPD. Before we get started, we need to discuss the basics of counseling and the gap that exists. Let's get to it...
Let's start with a few questions to determine your commitment to counseling. Is counseling important to you? Yes? Great. No, this might not be for you. IDK? let's keep going and you can answer that again at the end.
What is the purpose of counseling?
To sustain or modify behavior or actions through discussion, a plan of action, and follow up. Do we as an institution dedicate time to counseling? Do your leaders dedicate time? Do you dedicate time? If the answer is no, why not?
What has your organization devoted time to? Since the end of 2020, General McConville, Army Chief of Staff, has been prioritizing people as the first priority of the Army even over readiness previously identified by General Milley who was previously in his position. With these updates to people as a first priority came promises to give time back to leaders to develop others and build relationships.
How often are we supposed to counsel? What types of counseling are there? What are the approaches to counseling? How easily did you answer these questions? if it was easy, we are off to a good start. For those who aren't familiar let's cover these.
How often? Monthly for juniors and quarterly for NCOs at a minimum. Does that mean that we shouldn't do or receive counselings more frequently if justified? The average experience of a Soldiers is to receive an initial counseling (sometimes), negative counselings every time their leader gets in trouble or pissed off, and a backlog of counselings when it's time for a board. What about positive counselings or increasing the frequency from once a quarter to once a month or bi-monthly for NCOs that you know will have a reduced rating period?
What types? Performance/Professional Growth or Event-Oriented counseling. There are several different sub-topics within these topics but these are the overarching topics you need to put on the counseling form.
Non-Directive, Directive, and Combined. This is how to conduct your counseling session and fill out your 4856. We'll talk about different times to use these different approaches and how you can use these different approaches to prepare juniors to critically think about their performance and counsel others later.
When we fail to counsel juniors on a regular basis, we may be doing more harm than good. When was the last time you were counseled? When you were counseled, were there any surprises? Did you receive clear guidance and direction as to your expectations or clear guidance as to performance that needed to be sustained or improved?
So many times I hear of Soldiers who receive a surprise counseling with something they weren't aware of or on a topic that they had no idea was a problem. It seems there is a large problem of leaders who occupy their time with matters other than professional development either by choice or requirement from senior leadership or those that simply choose not to because they want to avoid conflict or awkwardness.
Have you ever received a positive counseling? Have you heard of a positive counseling? If you have received one, what was it for? Do you remember the plan of action given to you? Who gave you the counseling and how long ago was it?
Chances are that if you have received one, you will remember the answer to each of those questions. It likely has had an impact on your life whether just a positive memory or much more as a an event that shaped the way you perform and possibly counsel or interact with your Soldiers. Every time I conduct this class during an NCOPD with junior NCOs or junior enlisted, if there is anyone who received a positive counseling (which is very rare), it remains a clear memory no matter how long ago it was. Remember that when it comes to counseling your juniors.
Now let's get into the 4856 itself. There are some "secrets" this form holds and from the conversations I've had with countless juniors, there is an exceptionally small number (1%) of people who use and fill out the form the right way. I'm not talking about the "magic bullet" or even the right template to use so let's get started.
Let me start off by saying that this is only a tool, there are several other ways of conducting and documenting counseling sessions with Soldiers. Being that this is the standardized and most commonly used form, I'll talk about this one and how it's supposed to be used as well as the inconsistencies I generally see when auditing counseling packets.
Have you ever been counseled, maybe you weren't provided a copy of the form, and the leader just starts going off talking about something that catches you off guard or starts talking about something that you have no clue about but you got wrapped up into a generic counseling because you belong to a section, were a witness, or were just straight up falsely identified as being part of a problem when you were really on leave or TDY when this thing happened?
What happened? Was your time well spent? Did it take away from something more important? How did it make you feel? Did you lose trust in the leader? Were you confused or angry during the counseling session because of this rushed and vague approach to counseling?
If we follow the directions on the form, we should be able to mitigate this from happening during a counseling session.
I'm not going to cover the admin data here, it's self explanatory and I don't usually see much error in that section.
When you begin filling out the background information, what do you put in the box? Most commonly I see "End of month counseling for _______" or Initial counseling for ______"
Great, so we have the topic for the counseling but what else is supposed to go in there? Sometimes I get people who say "the type of counseling, negative, EOM, or professional growth". This is a good start and may be included here but let's look closer at the "secret" of the form and what it tells us.
Look at the underlined portion and see that there are two things you are supposed to put here.
1. The reason: performance, professional growth, or event oriented. The examples Soldiers usually give me are examples of these topics but a large problem, I think, is that the only thing most people associate event-oriented counseling forms with is negative counseling. This concerns me greatly. The military has identified several different events that would justify an event-oriented counseling to give guidance and direction to a junior or simply check to make sure they have a good grasp on how to handle a situation, the consequences of certain actions, or even just the resources available for something they are or about to go through.
Most of the time this section will have something in it that states the reason for the counseling so that's good.
2. The second thing that should be in here is generally always missing though. Let's look back at the highlighted information and read "includes the leader's facts and observations prior to the counseling". How often do you add this information or have seen it in here when being counseled? It's not particularly necessary to have an effective counseling session but very helpful when clearly identifying what your observations are in short, clear, and concise sentences. I would say that this has been most beneficial in negative event-oriented counseling sessions in my experience as it let's me identify the purpose and my objective observations before we get into the main counseling conversation while also freeing up space in part 3 to add more relevant data if needed. Part 2 allows you to open the session and give the relevant information about what you want to discuss immediately so the Soldier isn't guessing what this is about and has the ability to process the topic early on generally leading to better conversation later on.
Let's go back to that situation of the counseling session at the beginning of this section. We can mitigate this from happening by printing off a copy for them to read along and properly fill out the purpose and observations here in part 2.
Usually the data in part 1 and part 2 will all be filled out prior to the counseling session because you should already know who you are counseling, what it is about, and what your observations are.
Next, we move to the summary or the conversation portion of the counseling session. What are the different ways you have seen this portion of the session done? have your counseling forms always been prefilled out entirely? Does your leader leave blanks or open spaces to add or verify data? Have you ever had a leader that wrote things here as you were discussing them?
There are many ways to conduct this portion. A completely prefilled form usually means this is a directive counseling session and can indicate many things like a lesser experienced counselor, a condensed time for the conversation, poor penmanship, or a disconnected interpersonal relationship.
When discussing this portion there should be a conversation happening that checks the receiver for understanding, clarification of details, and personalization of content. There isn't just one way of filling this portion out or conducting this piece of the counseling session, this should be adapted to each counseling session.
Next, is the plan of action, what all goes in the plan of action? What have you seen in here and what do you put here?
Most commonly people say "what your supposed to do at the end of or as a result of the counseling session". That is correct but only a portion of what is supposed to go here. Each bullet in the plan of action is supposed to consist of three elements. What are they? We have identified one of them above previously which would be the goal. So what else is there? Let's look at the form.
Look at the subtext the "secret" portion of this section for guidance. It tells us to make SMART goals. If you don't know what the acronym SMART is, look it up, it will help you as a leader and throughout life. SMART= Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.
The subtext here says what we need to have 1. Goal, 2. Actions to complete the goal like substeps, and 3. A timeline to complete either the goal or the substep.
Most commonly I'll see a statement here similar to "SM will complete 20 correspondence course hours this month." Well this is a start and gives them some direction but we are missing a piece here. Usually the goals I see in the plan of action are missing either the substeps to complete the goal or the timeline, particularly in EOM counseling or negative event-oriented.
The next part is session closing.
Most often I see a bock checked by the individual counseled as well as the signature and date, this is common. What I rarely see is mentioned in the subtext again. "The leader summarizes the key points of the session" This is not critical and won't take away from the counseling session or the documentation in my opinion but should be included nonetheless.
Let's also talk about the agreement piece real quick. What does the agreement mean? Many will say you are agreeing to what is on the form or more commonly the admin data. What does the subtext say about this? "The leader checks if the subordinate understands the plan of action, the subordinate agrees or disagrees". According to this the subordinate agrees that they understand the plan of action. I am not a legal representative so I won't discuss here what failing to sign or disagreeing does for a Soldier.
The last portion of Part III is the leader responsibilities. Most often I see this section empty as well. This is a big failure of leadership when not filled out. In the plan of action the leader and junior come to agree on goals, steps to accomplish the goals, and the timeline to complete them in.
This means that both the leader and the junior have a responsibility in ensuring that the goals are accomplished. As a leader, you would have already specified what the junior is supposed to do to accomplish the goals but this is where you identify how you are going to assist the Soldier in accomplishing the goal. Many times these goals are not the idea of the junior and they might not even care about it. In these circumstances you will have even greater responsibility in ensuring that the goal is reached. This is where you specify what you as a leader are going to do to support and lead the junior in accomplishing the goals in the plan of action. As leaders, our job is to serve others as a top priority and this section shows if you are invested in the success of the junior.
Part IV is small and unfortunately most commonly overlooked and left uncompleted. I have met only a handful of leaders who complete this section when I audit packets.
This is a very important part of the counseling process but requires additional time and effort to complete which is likely why it is so commonly left empty. Finding time and dedicating additional effort to the development of others with the significant amount of other priorities that units give us make it hard to remember this, dedicate time to complete it, complete our tasks, and still have adequate time left over to decompress by doing things we love or spend time with family.
Have you had a junior that consistently fails to accomplish the goals listed in the plan of action? Well there are a few reasons for failure. 1. the Soldier doesn't care and doesn't have any desire to complete it, 2. The leader didn't fulfill their responsibilities listed in part III, 3. or nobody is following up to make sure it was done and there is no consequence for failure.
There can be some other contributing factors but these are the most common in my experience. Completing this section gives the junior a reason to complete the goal you assigned them or agreed on and in severe circumstances helps senior leaders see that the counselor has put forth good time and efforts to correct a problem and lets them see if there is a trend of failure that needs to be actioned.
Let me ask you now is counseling important to you? If you've made it this far, I'm guessing it is. If it's not, why not?
More importantly, what are you going to do to implement the information here into your leadership style? Think about it and give an example below.
Department of the Army. (2014, July). Developmental Counseling Form (DA Form 4856). Headquarters, Department of the Army. https://armypubs.army.mil/pub/eforms/DR_a/pdf/A4856.pdf
JBLM Legal Team. (2019, March). Master counseling template.
Morgan, B. (2019, February 7). Future Capabilities or Readiness? It’s Time to Rethink the Army’s Priorities. Modern War Institute. https://mwi.usma.edu/future-capabilities-readiness-time-rethink-armys-priorities/#:%7E:text=Mark%20Milley%20announced%20that%20%E2%80%9Creadiness,future%20Army%20(his%20number%20two
‘The time is now’ to transform the Army, says CSA. (2020, October 14). Www.Army.Mil. https://www.army.mil/article/239925/the_time_is_now_to_transform_the_army_says_cs