Mid-level police officers play a pivotal role in balancing the demands of task-oriented and empowering leadership. (Photo: Getty Images)

Mid-level police officers play a pivotal role in balancing the demands of task-oriented and empowering leadership. (Photo: Getty Images)

Traditionally, police departments are hierarchical, task-oriented organizations, where leaders with a directive style of management are perceived as effective managers. But is that true? Our research shows that a different leadership style, one that empowers subordinates, is, in general, better. Policing has become increasingly difficult, not in the least because of two very conflicting trends.

One trend concerns the public's trust in policing. Trust in the police has been declining in response to frequent, often erroneous, reports of police officers using excessive force against minorities. This has prompted calls for reducing police discretion and increased monitoring of officers and agencies.

Many of these uses of force are later proven to be justified. However, we should not overestimate reports about declining trust in police. A 2015 Gallup poll indicated that people generally have more faith in the police than in most other social institutions. Still, 64% of people in 2003 expressed trust in the police, declining to 52% in 2015. So there is some decline, and it is most pronounced among African Americans. Only 30% of blacks surveyed in the 2015 Gallup poll expressed trust in policing.

The second trend is an effort to reform by empowering subordinates through decentralizing authority and increasing work autonomy. An example of empowerment would be when police officers are asked to provide input in decision making. Research that we have done suggests that empowerment is an important vehicle for improving service delivery and performance. Empowerment has a positive influence on task performance, conscientiousness, and effectiveness of work and it has been shown to improve job satisfaction, commitment, and intention to continue working in the agency, and leadership development in general.

Mid-level police officers — those in the ranks of sergeant, lieutenant, and captain—play a pivotal role in balancing the demands of task-oriented leadership on the one hand and empowering leadership on the other. Our research shows that an empowering leadership style has, in general, a clear and positive effect upon employees, work unit, and manager performance. More specifically, police officers in leadership positions who embody and apply empowering managerial practices will find that such behavior trickles down in the organization.

Our Methodology

Since 2013, the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University in collaboration with the Ohio Department of Public Safety and the Ohio State Highway Patrol has run the Public Safety Leadership Academy (PSLA). This is an 11-week, residential program of intensive education and training for mid-level law enforcement officers. Each cohort has about 35 participants who are perceived as having the potential to rise further in the ranks. The program includes a smorgasbord of topics relevant to police leaders as well as various aspects of leadership such as leadership styles, followership, types of communication, cultural competencies, conflict resolution, social media strategies, and citizen engagement. As part of this program, we have conducted a leadership survey in each of the cohorts since 2014.

We surveyed 101 law enforcement officers about their management practices. Each of them was asked to provide a list of names and e-mail addresses of five to six subordinates and the name and e-mail address of their immediate supervisor. Thus, 507 subordinates and 101 immediate supervisors were surveyed as well. The research reported here is based on the surveys collected of the 2014, 2015, and 2016 cohorts.

The survey included questions in four groups of managerial practices:

Tasks: clarifying assignments, planning work, problem-solving, and monitoring operations

Relations: supporting, coaching, recognizing, and empowering behaviors

Change: vision for and support of change and innovation, facilitating collective learning

External Elements: monitoring of events in the relevant social environment of the town, state, nation; representation of agency in the social environment, including lobbying for funding; and networking by attending local meetings and events, and participating in professional associations and local clubs.

Leaders and Followers

The "relations" category is most relevant to this article's topic. "Supporting" includes attention for needs and feelings of subordinates, that is, especially in the case of those who face a difficult or stressful task and those who experience challenging family circumstances. "Coaching" concerns a manager's feedback and career advice to subordinates. "Recognizing" involves a manager's explicit appreciation for a subordinate's achievements and work quality. Finally, "empowerment" occurs when a manager delegates responsibility and authority of important tasks to subordinates, thus expressing confidence in their abilities and simultaneously signaling the potential for advancement. 

Empowering leadership is linked to subordinates' conscientiousness. (Photo: POLICE File)

Empowering leadership is linked to subordinates' conscientiousness. (Photo: POLICE File)

Each participant received her/his summary report that included their own rating of performance in these four areas as well as how their subordinates and supervisors rated them. The results of the summary report were discussed with each participant. In the overall evaluation of the program and in the program's capstone paper the majority of participants noted that they highly valued the survey and two reasons stood out. The survey results confirmed their own assessment of their leadership skills, and it helped identify which skills could be improved. One intriguing detail of the self-assessment is that the subordinates' rating of their supervisor's managerial practices was generally closer to the self-assessment of the participants in our cohorts than the rating of the supervisor was. This illustrates that subordinates have ample opportunity to observe their immediate supervisor; a senior officer has much less opportunity to observe the managerial practices of their middle-level supervisors.

Empowerment and Performance

In our research, we focused especially on task performance and conscientiousness. Task performance concerns the execution of job duties and responsibilities. Conscientiousness includes active positive contributions such as following agency and work protocols, as well as avoidance of harmful or negative behaviors such as being late, taking long breaks, and misusing discretion.

Our most important conclusion counters the present emphasis on reducing police discretion and increased monitoring. We propose that empowerment should be more systematically introduced and supported by police departments. We found a statistically significant link between empowering leadership and the conscientiousness with which subordinates conduct their work. We found no relation between task-oriented leadership and conscientiousness.

Subordinates rate empowering leaders high in managerial effectiveness. By contrast, supervisors of empowering leaders do not regard empowerment as an element of managerial effectiveness. This may not be as surprising as it seems. From our discussions with participants, we know that mid-level police officers are in frequent contact with their subordinates and the latter have a very good impression of the managerial capabilities of their boss. Supervisors of mid-level police officers have much less frequent interaction with their immediate reports and are thus more inclined to focus on the task-oriented elements of the job. In other words, the subordinates expect different things from their supervisor, than the supervisors do from their mid-level subordinates.

It is enlightening to know that empowering leadership is more important for individual performance and workgroup effectiveness than task-oriented leadership. Public sector personnel, whether uniformed or not, and whether frontline workers, mid-level managers (as in our study), or higher-level leaders, all appreciate the trust given that comes with empowerment.

Empowerment trickles down in an organization in two very important ways. Mid-level managers use more empowering practices when their immediate supervisors do. Also, subordinates of mid-level supervisors are more likely to voice their opinion about specific work practices when their immediate supervisor exercises an empowering managerial style. In other words, empowerment works when middle-level and senior officers lead by example. Without losing sight of the need for task-oriented responsibilities, we think that empowering leadership will be honored by subordinates through better performance. We also suspect that empowerment generally does not lead to sub-quality performance and abuse of the discretion given.

Russell Hassan is an associate professor in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University. His research concerns leadership in public organizations.

Jongsoo Park is an assistant professor at Korea University in Seoul. His research concerns influence of leadership practices on attitudes, behavior, and performance in public organizations.

Jos C.N. Raadschelders is a professor and the associate dean for faculty John Glenn College, Ohio State University. His research concerns role and position of government in society. He has taught mid-career middle- and upper-level public servants since the 1980s.