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Back to Archives | Back to October 2003 Contents 

People-Oriented Leadership

Donald Grinder, Lieutenant, Arlington County Police Department, Arlington, Virginia


olice officers and managers across the country describe many of the same problems: low morale, cynicism, poor communication, and distrust of the management system. A common reason why these problems develop is that police leaders tend to focus on the process much more than they do on the people who work within the process. By providing people-oriented leadership many of these problems can be solved.

People-oriented leaders ask themselves the following questions routinely:

  • Do your employees consider you a great manager?
  • Do you refer to yourself as a people person?
  • Do you take the time to get to know the people you work with and supervise?
  • Do you know their strengths and talents along with their weaknesses?
  • Do you attempt to make employees fit better into an organization by identifying what people are good at and placing them in positions where they can use their strengths and talents to benefit the organization?
  • Do you gain a measure of satisfaction from seeing others excel with your help?

People-oriented leaders know their employees' strengths and talents and they place people in positions that take advantage of those positive characteristics. Commanders and supervisors who understand and focus on the human element in managing are most likely the true leaders within the police department.

People-oriented leaders, who are also technically competent in their job, inspire their people. These leaders are often the reason that people remain loyal to an organization. Great managers know what the mission of police work is and they know how to accomplish that mission. They also know that the key to achieving goals and accomplishing missions is the people they supervise. Unlocking the potential in each and every employee to achieve organizational goals is paramount in the mind of every great manager.

People Power

Recently I was fortunate to be a participant in a pilot project sponsored by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. This project focused on a leadership model taken directly from the U.S. Military Academy and its application to police work. Twenty-four of my coworkers were exposed to this model over a four-week period. Class members were taught a wide variety of individual and group motivation and development theories, which were incorporated into situations relevant to law enforcement.

Two key concepts of the class were introduced on the first day of instruction and constantly reinforced throughout the course. The first concept was the leader problem-solving model. This template is based on the problem-solving model developed by Herman Goldstein and should be familiar to most people involved in law enforcement. It is used to identify problems or areas of opportunity that need to be addressed by an organizational leader. These areas are analyzed using any relevant individual or group development theories familiar to the leader. Once a theory is developed, a leader action plan is constructed to help employees respond to the problem or opportunity. As with any successful problem-solving project, assessment of the leader action plan is undertaken to insure that proper decisions have been made.

The second concept was the model of organizations. This model outlines the top-down interaction of various groups in an organization. Highlighted was the need to communicate the mission and the goals of the organization consistently throughout the organization. Even though various segments of an organization may perform different functions, all must work together to fulfill the mission of the organization. It also stresses the need to be acutely aware of the environment that surrounds each organization. Outside forces are continually changing, and the way in which an organization fulfills it mission should evolve accordingly.

These two concepts are key to fulfilling the mission of any organization cultivating an organization's people power. People power is the knowledge, skills, abilities, life experiences and talents of the individuals in the organization either acting as a group or individually. There is no blueprint, no outline, no golden rule on how to cultivate this power, but there is a way to start. Each manager at every level in the organization should be connected to those above, below, and beside him or her. Communication needs to occur at all levels between employees of all position and rank. Relationships are the key to success.

In First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman promote the idea of departing from conventional wisdom relating to commonly accepted management theory. Police work can be well served by this concept. If a chief wants to change an organization from a process focus to a people focus, several rules will need to be broken. The first and most important is the long-held notion that familiarity breeds contempt. To promote relationship building people need to get to know each other. That requires that managers possess communication skills that permit them to interact effectively with all of their employees.

Often police professionals have not done enough to identify the best communicators. Too often the focus is on technical knowledge or tactical ability. While these factors are important assets, in policing there is a tendency to focus too much energy on general skills and processes instead of people power and relationships. Unless leaders depart from conventional behavior, issues such as poor communication and morale will continue. If police executives want a productive, motivated workforce, they need to take steps to identify and promote individuals who possess a people focus, who can make connections, who can honestly evaluate personnel and who can bring out the very best in each employee.

More Than Just Communication

Although communication may be at the center of management effectiveness, managers need to be able to perform several tasks to be successful. The authors Buckingham and Coffman believe that managers need to be proficient at the following four tasks in order to even be considered eligible for the great manager category:

  • Select a person for a position

  • Set expectations for that person

  • Motivate the employee

  • Develop the employee as time progresses

How does selecting a person for a position apply to police work? First, the means identifying individuals well suited to this profession is essential. Although the police selection process is governed by personnel rules of the jurisdiction, several people-oriented chiefs go a step further in the selection process and conduct their own personal interview with each candidate to ensure that the applicant had the same values represented by the organization. In larger organizations it would be impossible for chiefs to accomplish these personal interviews, but selecting people for key positions that represent chief's core values, mission, and goals the employee selections they make will be a good fit. Regardless who makes the selection the important point is that alignment with the department's philosophy is essential.

Selecting goes far beyond the initial hiring process. There will be positions in a department that people will naturally fit into. Some will be better narcotics officers while others will be better suited to work in schools. Buckingham and Coffman profess that talent has a great deal to do with this phenomenon. They believe that every employee can be taught knowledge and skills. Each employee will learn these skills to a certain degree. Talent is something that a person will naturally gravitate towards. The authors explain that every person has pathways established in their brains that make certain tasks easier for them than others. These pathways are established by age 15 and are maintained for the duration of one's life. These physiological pathways make certain people excel at certain tasks where others can only hope for acceptable performance.

Understanding this concept is important for law enforcement managers. Police managers can use this principle to an advantage. Modern policing provides opportunities for individuals of many different backgrounds to undertake a worthwhile career in public service. Now more than ever it is imperative for police managers to make connections with their employees, understand their backgrounds, uncover their talents, and place them in positions where they can excel.

Policing is an incredibly complex profession and often officers as well as managers are expected to be masters of all trades. Some police leaders believe that disbanding specialized units, mandating the rotation of officers out of units, and expecting that all officers can be problem solvers and be involved in community policing are mistakes in generalizing police work. Instead, it is the people-oriented manager's responsibility to discover talents in their officers and place them where they can be most effective. If there are no such opportunities then the potential for individual employees to excel is severely limited.

Setting the Goals

The people who are hired as police officers in Arlington, Virginia, are expected to possess courage, competence, compassion, commitment, restraint, respect, and, above all, integrity. Arlington expects these virtues to be exhibited on a daily basis. Whatever a department expects of its employees needs to be communicated to them. Core values, missions, and goals need to be continually reinforced. Employees are hired based on these principles and they need to be reminded of the values on a regular basis. Reinforcement of core values reinforces expectations, ensuring a baseline performance level in all of employees. Once this baseline is established, managers and employees have more freedom to focus on the attainment of excellence.

Aside from core values, missions, and goals, what else is expected of police officers? Employees must be thoroughly prepared for their work. A common mistake made early in changing from the traditional policing model to a community policing model was the expectation that any officer can do community policing, but the department's leadership did not define the concept and accompanying expectations. Ambiguity breeds confusion, confusion breeds discontent, and discontent lowers morale, which can be directly related to marginal performance. This is not what is found in a high-performing organization. This is why the communication of expectations is so vital.

The generalization of the police function can place a department in a position where the defining of expectations is blurred. When police officers are expected to be able to perform functions once performed by specialists, the department is setting up for failure and lower technical productivity. Providing a laundry list of expectations that may or may not be able to be attained promotes ambiguity in measuring performance. From a first-line supervisor's perspective, a clear, concise list of duties and responsibilities for the officers is essential. With this list, acceptable performance can be attained, and above average performance can be measured and rewarded.

Motivate Me

What gets you up in the morning? What makes you perform at work? Why do you govern yourself within the guidelines set by your employer? If you ask 100 people, you may get 100 different answers. Some people perform for money, others because they want to get promoted. Some people are achievers and want to constantly improve on their own performance. Everyone is different and will behave and make decisions for their own reasons. They will also perform at various levels of performance for many different reasons. Managers who communicate effectively and make connections with their employees usually understand what motivates those who work for them. This understanding permits them the opportunity to provide incentives that can motivate people to excel.

Being able to apply a relevant behavior theory to a given situation when the variable is motivation is a necessary step in the process of becoming a people-oriented leader. Police managers need to understand employee motivation. Understanding employees is that final step in the relationship process that helps a leader make the right decisions. In work situations there are some who need challenges and welcome difficult assignments while working independently, whereas others thrive better in less complex assignments with greater supervision. People-oriented leaders know each group member's ability to complete tasks and whenever appropriate make the assignments to ensure a successful, rewarding work performance. People-oriented leaders also provide appropriate performance recognition to employees. When appropriate an employee motivated by public recognition can be nominated for various departmental awards, whereas employees motivated by financial award can be nominated for merit or special incentive financial awards in departments with this type of recognition program. A people-oriented manager will reward an officer who seeks more training and wishes to acquire new skills by sending him or her to become a drug recognition expert (DRE) or to receive some other coveted training. Regardless of the motivation, only by knowing the personal needs and desires of the employee can the leader support the employee and provide motivation to do outstanding work.

Employee Development

The last task that Buckingham and Coffman indicate a manager should be responsible for is to develop employees as time progresses. This represents the final step in the communication and relationship-building process between managers and those managed. After the manager has gotten to know the people, and understands what motivates them, it is important for the manager to know their employees' view of the future.

Employees' wants, needs, and points of view will change over time. It is a manager's responsibility to keep pace with this change and determine future needs. The manager must then take these needs into consideration in relation to the organization. Is a particular employee still producing in their current assignment? Is there another position that would better suit this employee given the current situation? What are the career goals of this employee? These and many other variables need to be considered. Once again, it all falls back on communication.

In regards to career development, the best managers rely on continual feedback. If an employees does something right, they will hear about it immediately. The same method applies if the employee performs in a substandard manner. If there is a pattern of good behavior or unacceptable behavior, it will be documented and addressed. Some managers prefer monthly or quarterly critiques. Whatever the method may be, prompt, pertinent feedback is essential. It reinforces and communicates expectations and it can assist in providing career planning for employees during review sessions.

Conventional wisdom has taught that during these feedback sessions managers should identify areas in which employees should strive to make improvements. For example, traditionally if a person were not proficient in public speaking, it would be advisable to send them to a public speaking class to improve that particular skill. Buckingham and Coffman argue that you could send that employee to 100 such improvement classes and if the employee lacks the talent for that particular duty, he or she may improve but will never excel at it. Instead, during reviews, discuss the use of employee strengths and talents in real work situations. Let these discussions help identify talents and guide the assignment of duties throughout the workgroup. Place coworkers together who have complementary strengths.

When guiding employees through career development, keep them focused on their strengths and talents. Before the review meeting, examine the employee's past performance in specific situations and treat it as a good indication of future performance. It is a blueprint of how someone observes a situation, analyzes the situation, and reacts to it. Remember, the pathways in the brain have been established. Most individual behavior will not deviate greatly; therefore, past performance is a good indicator of future performance.■

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From The Police Chief, vol. 70, no. 10, October 2003. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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