WRITTEN BY: Captain Mike Schentrup (RET)
Originally published in American Police Beat in 2019
In the last decade, much has been written about positive leadership and how joyful, optimistic leaders are more successful with their teams; but how does this look in the day-to-day routine operations of a police department? How can Lieutenants, Captains, and Chiefs make their departments a place where everyone wants to come to work? Can we make a police department a joyful place to work? I believe the answer is yes.
Being a cop is a tough, stressful job to begin with. More so than ever, cops are under a microscope from the media and the public. Departments across the country have staffing problems and overall morale is low. Numerous surveys suggest that police officers get more stress from internal issues, than external. Let’s put a real-life example to this: most cops would rather respond to an active shooter than be called back to the station by their Lieutenant! If you told this to a civilian, they would never believe it.
Let’s look at five easy area Command can effect immediately to drive up morale.
- Shift Briefings – most departments start their workday with a short shift briefing. I’ve known plenty of cops who would tell me this is the worst 20 minutes of their day. How is this possible? I’ve heard it said that patrol officers feel most helpless and powerless the moment they walk into the briefing room. This is the time where another management directive will be cast upon them. Shift briefings must be light and joyful. Information should be relayed and sometimes frank discussions should be had, but how can we send our front-line folks out to meet the public after the worst 20 minutes of their day? This is low hanging fruit. Work with your shift/watch commanders. Encourage positive shift briefings. Limits “class spanks” (we’ll discuss these next). Commend in public those who did well and talk to those privately after who need some coaching. Debrief critical incidents constructively and let the team make their own observations. Normally they will hit all the good points along with the areas where improvement can come. Commanders are there to listen and move the conversation.
- “Class-Spanks” – we’ve all been in the room, when the boss starts off with, “Hey, no big deal, but we’ve had a few complaints of cops speeding along Highway 40. Please slow down.” This is the quintessential class spank. A wise sergeant gave me some great advice early on about class spanks; they don’t work. Here’s why. The ones you were trying to get the message to probably weren’t paying attention to begin with and the good officers who were paying attention now think the admonishment was meant for them. This goes for email class-spanks too. Do we really think marginal employees read the emails that are not specifically directed at them? Coaching and corrective action should always be one-on-one. Command staff should NEVER conduct a class spank in briefing. Leave these comments to your shift/watch commanders. Again, is this easy; no, because class spanks are easy. But creating a positive environment takes work on the part of Command.
- Emails – there should be an entire book written about this, and if fact, I bet there is. We already spoke about class-spanks should never be conducted by email. I will concede email is effective at reaching a large audience, but who are you actually reaching? Secondly, email is the definition of one-way communication. There is no inflection, no way to read sarcasm, and no way to ultimately convey a tough message. Face-to-face is the best. It allows true two-way communication (remember, 80% of communication is nonverbal). I know this is not always possible, so a phone call is next best.
- Knee-Jerk Reactions – there is nothing more demotivating for front-line officers than the perceived knee-jerk reaction. We all know this. “Johnny screwed up so the City Commission has mandated training for everyone.” To the line personnel, there is usually no rhyme or reason to the change or they believe it is a knee jerk reaction to misguided public sentiment. The IACP puts on a great training course called Leadership in Police Organizations. One of the main points I took from it is that MOST, I mean almost all, decisions do not have to be made really fast. And, you will learn that any decision that is well thought out will be a better decision. So please slow it down. Think about how any decision will affect real people, both sworn and non-sworn.
- Servant Leadership – finally to be a positive leader, one must be a servant leader. Leaders must serve the ones they lead. This is not counterintuitive. We are responsible for providing those we lead with the things they need. Always take the time to listen to you team. Listen to each one. Sometimes they want to vent. And your main job is to listen and maybe help them understand that sometimes there is a bigger picture. Most of your folks just want to be heard. Never ask them to do a job that you wouldn’t do yourself. In fact, the more menial the task, the more important it is that your folks see you performing it.
Although I call these five things low-hanging-fruit, they are not easy. They take time and effort, but you took the job of a leader and now you must live up to it. Procedural Justice teaches us that employees who feel like they are treated well by their leaders are more likely to treat the public well. Maybe if we treat our line-officers better and they feel valued, they would pass this on to the community they serve? Seems easy to me.