Establishing Trust Is a Two-Way Street

Generally speaking, subordinates aren't comfortable with the prospect of opening up to some tight-assed supervisor. The perception that such people will always look out for their own best interests—a paradigm that would inevitably color their every decision when it comes to dealing with subordinates—might have something to do with it.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Recently, I read an article in a rival publication—one has to keep abreast of the competition, after all—that addressed some the issues confronting sergeants. The author made several valid points and the piece was well written.

However, there was one heartfelt point of contention where the author and I parted ways. He said that at no time should the supervisor open up about his own personal trials and tribulations to his subordinates.

Now I agree that subordinates should not become emotional dumping grounds for their supervisors. Save that shit for Dr. Phil.

Still, I've known supervisors who were little more than ciphers. Like Disneyland animatronics of old, they betrayed no hint of emotion or empathy, apparently under the belief that such stoic detachment reeked of professionalism.

But as Richard Valdemar notes in his excellent blog on interviews, "an officer, who might attempt to be very professional, impartial, and in-charge, can come across as officious and stern. This does not elicit open communication." Co-workers aren't immune from such interpretations either, and while such stern-faced professionalism might help one become a fine poker player, it doesn't lend itself to inspiring empathy or trust.

Because of this, people aren't always comfortable with the prospect of opening up to someone who comes across as a tight-assed bureaucrat, even when it might be in the best interests of all to do so. The common perception is that such politically-minded souls will always look out for their own best interests, a paradigm that will inevitably color their every decision when it comes to dealing with subordinates.

As a sergeant, I was the other extreme—wearing my heart on my sleeve more than I should have (but if you've read these blogs more than once, you already know that).

The appropriate tact lies somewhere between the two extremes. One should be in control of his emotions, or tactful in offering his opinions on matters, but at the same time not above acknowledging either.

At a philosophical level, I've always believed no topic is off the table. I was nosy enough to want to talk with deputies of various backgrounds to see what made them tick. Gays, lesbians, self-professed leftists and rightists, geeks and alphas, Christians and atheists—if they wore a badge, I wanted to know where they were coming from. As such, they have all entertained nosy-assed questions from me.

In a bid to foster candid conversation, I often opened up myself, as well—it was that whole quid pro quo thing. How the hell else was I supposed to know how people thought and what was important to them? How the hell else were they to know what to reasonably expect of me when it came to dealing with sensitive matters?

Briefing sessions touched on just about everything under the sun that I felt could impact a deputy's career, and if I thought a policy was b.s., I said so.

Speaking out against department policy was tantamount to heresy, and definitely out of sync with what the Supervisory Leadership Institute (SLI) taught. But I was hardly the first to do so, having been seduced into such candor by the precedence of those I'd respected throughout my career who'd been equally truthful in their occasional descent. They didn't check to see which way the wind was blowing before taking a stand, and if the emperor was standing starkers, they let him know it.

Through them I also learned that if I was going to be critical of a policy, then I couldn't just bitch about it to subordinates, but was obligated to speak with those in power, as well (even if those in positions to effect the requested changes were disinclined to do so, they couldn't accuse one of talking behind their backs).

Throughout, I also made it damn clear that my opinion didn't mean shit, and I left no doubt as to who would pay the price should someone violate some asinine policy.

Nor was I above using myself as a cautionary parable when it came to professional missteps (some could make the case my briefings were Exhibit A). I didn't want people who I felt had something to offer the department replicating the same mistakes I'd made and mess up their own chances for promotion, or find themselves exiled to some department gulag.

Whatever else, the people I worked with knew where I was coming from and what to expect of me. And I came to know as much about many of them.

And what was the pay-off for all this touchy-feely crap?

Oh, I suppose a few thought I was a wing nut (again, not without cause). But many others felt comfortable coming to me on a variety of matters, up to and including when they were contemplating permanent solutions for temporary problems. I felt honored to have enjoyed their trust. However, I also knew that I would not have received that trust had I not extended as much in turn.

So the next time that you feel determined to become some stonefaced android in dealing with a trainee or some other subordinate, give some consideration to exposing your human side if you aren't in the habit of doing so already.

You don't need to be a Weeping Willy, but for god sakes at least let them know that you're human and know where you're coming from.

The dividends might prove surprising.

Editor's Note: Here are a few questions to consider. We'd love to hear what you think, so please add your comment below.

Do you feel comfortable talking about some of the less savory aspects of your personal or professional history?

Do you think that such stuff should be off the table, and people should work together in a purely professional capacity, particularly if they occupy different ranks within a department's hierarchy?

Has your opening up to another come back to help or hurt you later?

In an age when words such as "discrimination" and "hostile workplace" are routinely part of the lexicon, are you worried about being seen as too intrusive, and having complaints filed against you?

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Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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