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Rallying the Troops

Build morale at your agency with strong leadership and open communication.

August 01, 2004  |  by Mark G. Stainbrook - Also by this author

Getting the Word Out

Maintaining effective internal dialog requires using both formal and informal means of communication.

Formal communication includes cle­arly written policies on everything from uniform regulations, weapons and equipment care, and report writing, to booking of evidence, prisoner handling, and a system of discipline. Well-defined policies help eliminate the possibility of future mistakes and misunderstandings.

Formal communications should be disseminated through the chain of command, during training and roll calls, on read boards, through weekly or monthly publications, and via the Internet. They should also include the means through which employees can submit ideas, make requests, and address grievances back up the chain.

Policies are important. But if you think formal communication is the main means of transmitting information you're wrong.

In 1939, the so-called Hawthorne Experiments, conducted by Mayo, Roethlisberger, and Dickson, proved that informal communication within organizations is more powerful than the formal. Due to the nature of law enforcement, morale can be heavily influenced by this effect.

Anyone who's worked in law enforcement knows that officers often receive information not through the department's formal system, but through gossip, rumor, locker room conversations, coffee breaks, or off-duty functions. These communications can sometimes have negative effects on morale.

Because of this, Escondido PD's Loarie believes supervisors need to address problems right away. "Get feedback from the team members and identify the specific issues that are causing the problem. Remove the red herrings, rumors, and the irrelevant-the problem will most likely present itself to a point that a solution can be discovered."

But informal communication isn't necessarily a bad thing. Depending on a department's size, there are different ways to use similar methods to your advantage to provide management-employee communications. Various departments use informal processes such as suggestion boxes, open-door policies, or perhaps an ombudsman, to facilitate conflict resolution.

In fact, sometimes communications outside the normal chain of command, such as conversations that occur in hallways, the briefing room, offices, or by the lunch truck, accomplish more than formal meetings. However a department best decides to maintain informal communications, the key is to keep everyone informed and focused on the department's mission, goals, and objectives.

Debriefs can be an important tool for communications and can be either formal or informal. Whether it is a very formal process after a major incident, or simply an informal meeting in the field among a sergeant, training officer, and a probationer on the tactics of a traffic stop, debriefs are invaluable tools to critique tactics, policies, and procedures.

In these meetings, criticism should be constructive, not destructive. The purpose is to evaluate how things can be done better and ensure everyone is on the same page. Timely and thorough debriefs promote officer safety, both mental and physical.

Whatever the situation, remember that communication is not just about writing and speaking, but also listening. As Hillmann writes in his leadership notes, "Pay attention; someone else may have a good idea."

Recognizing Excellence

The importance of recognizing the accomplishments of a police department's employees extends not only to those actually awarded, but to all who see that appreciation is being properly bestowed on their peers.

Since law enforcement organizations cannot monetarily reward individuals, like businesses can, it is critical that the efforts of all employees are appreciated. Encourage supervisors to know the policy on awards submission and to submit awards and commendations as appropriate.

Formal awards should be presented regularly in a ceremonial environment. Awards for heroism, achievement, and service are great examples of formal recognition. Another is the Officer of the Quarter or Officer of the Year award, which, if possible, should be voted on by peers.

In some areas, community groups also present awards to public employees for service or merit. Take advantage of these opportunities for this very public recognition of deserving officers.

But you don't necessarily need to hand out an award to commend an officer on a job well done.

Informal recognition may be as simple as a pat on the back or a note on a report thanking an officer for outstanding work. Try reading commendations in roll call and posting positive letters from citizens in conspicuous places for everyone to read.

Find creative ways to recognize deserving officers. One of Harkins' innovative informal awards was very popular among military policemen. "At one of my PMOs (Provost Marshal's Office) my leaders and I awarded the 'Backbone Award' to the Marine, of any rank, who best displayed the qualities of a (noncommissioned officer," he remembers. "The award was literally a deer backbone, about a foot long, tied to a bootlace. The award was voted on by peers and awarded as if it were a true military award. Sometimes it looked like the Marines would rather have that than a promotion."

Maintaining Morale

During the First Gulf War, Gen. Alfred Gray, the Marine Corps Commandant, told Marines staged for the attack in Kuwait, "There will be morale." The general took some criticism from the media and others who might not understand, but Marines knew what he meant.

They were living under severe and austere conditions, but they were well trained, well led, and had the courage, honor, and commitment instilled in them when they earned the title "Marine." Gen. Gray was merely reminding them that when times were tough, morale would be good because they were doing what Marines are paid to do.

There are some officers you'll never be able to reach. They'll be happy to complain no matter their situation. But if you focus on taking care of your people as best you can and on letting them know they are valued, it will show.

For the most part, well-trained and properly motivated police officers will return to the foundation of their training in tough times; they will respond to inspired leadership; and...they will have good morale.

Mark Stainbrook is a sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department and a major in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. He has served tours in Kosovo and Iraq.

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