On January 28, 1986 six astronauts and a middle school teacher boarded the space shuttle Challenger for a historic moment in NASA's brief history. Unfortunately, the moment etched in the annals of history would not be for sending a teacher into space, but for a faulty decision-making process that would ultimately cost all seven astronauts their lives. NASA had the best technology and highly qualified employees, but every organization has vulnerabilities, and an assured way to experience those vulnerabilities is through leadership failures or inadequacies in how to utilize employees.
NASA's engineering team during the Challenger launch serves as a case study in failed leadership and organizational ethics because key leadership exploited their employees instead of utilizing them. The political environment within the organization resulted in "production pressure" leading to the risky launch decision. At the epicenter of NASA's faulty decision to launch was the general manager pressuring senior engineers to "take off their engineering hat and put on their management hat." While news headlines captured images of the failed O-ring giving way to a fuel leak just prior to the explosion, the real failure behind this tragedy in the Challenger explosion was not a mechanical failure, but a leadership one.
NASA was an organization with high hopes and dreams of continued evolution in space flight. Instead, with this incident began its slow descent. Ultimately, the shuttle program would make its final landing coming to a "wheels stop" in 2011 after 30 years of missions and over 130 flights. The dangers in space flight, just like the dangers in policing, are inherent in the job description; some organizations experience greater risks than others, but all organizations face critical vulnerabilities when there is a disconnect between leadership and employees, specifically, how employees are utilized and engaged in day-to-day operations.
There are workshops, clinics, courses, and programs to help leaders empower employees, thereby getting them engaged, but the reality is that leaders often merely pay lip service to employee engagement. This may be the result of organizational complexity rather than apathy as law enforcement organizations are good at implementing programs and initiatives, but often fail to adequately assess results.
Being successful takes a lot more initiative and effort than merely looking successful. Organizational success rests on quality leadership coupled with employee engagement, not programs or periodic initiatives. Establishing three basic goals for the relationship between your organization and its employees will go a long way toward success.
Know Your Employees
To be a leader, people need to follow you. The organization can give you the rank or position, and human resources can give you the pay raise, but only subordinates can give you the coveted title of "leader." When you know your employees, you are aware of their goals, strengths, abilities, and other aspects of their personal and professional lives. Knowing and understanding who your employees are rather than just what they do will equip you to care for their basic needs. This in turn will help you build the foundational relationship needed to make you a leader in your organization.
One approach for getting to know your employees is breaking the monotony of the annual employee performance evaluation. Implement a mid-year evaluation and find out what your employees' goals are, or help them establish some short-term goals. Ultimately, short-term goals often lead to success that can be celebrated as you also learn what motivates and drives your employees. Employee evaluations that include key phrases like "goal-driven" or "ability to achieve results" will not only aid you in knowing what your employees want from their careers, but it will also inspire them to establish goals and achieve positive results within the organization.
Facilitate Employee Engagement
Employee engagement is a key performance indicator for success in any organization. It is simply defined as a psychological commitment to an organization, a performance construct, or a positive attitude. According to the Institute for Employee Studies, engaged employees are likely to stay with their current organization, advocate for their organization, and outperform other employees by a significant margin. Unfortunately, research shows that the overwhelming majority of employees are either "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" from their organization.
Law enforcement agencies need not only quality employees to provide the best services for the public, but employees who are engaged psychologically and gain a sense of fulfillment from their career in order to attract potential employees. In years past, law enforcement agencies did not have to struggle to find quality employees like the business world did, but that is no longer the case. In 2016, the Dallas Police Department canceled two academy classes due to a lack of applicants, and currently police agencies all over the nation, including those in my home state of Kentucky, are struggling to find quality applicants.
One key to getting your employees engaged with your organization is knowing your employees' strengths and utilizing those strengths within your agency. Employee engagement also hinges upon strong relationships; open, two-way communication; and inspiring leadership. In other words, the challenges and rewards of the job are not as inherent as one might initially believe; it really does take leadership to facilitate employee engagement within a law enforcement agency.
Recognize Your Employees
Recognition is directly tied to an employee's perception of self-value to the organization. It also creates a unique company culture and strengthens relationships. This is because recognition activates the same neurotransmitters as gratitude. The result not only enhances employee appreciation and engagement, but also facilitates better health. Just as with employee engagement, employee recognition is most effective when leaders know their employees and have unique approaches to rewarding them with the resources available. Is this challenging for a leader of a law enforcement agency? Absolutely! But that is one of the many challenges of leadership.
Your employees are the most valuable resource your organization possesses and they must always be treated as such. Working directly with them to achieve organizational goals and objectives is always going to be more beneficial than a dictatorial or hardline approach. Whether you are a police chief or a first-line supervisor you must know your employees and get them engaged if you are going to operate with maximum effectiveness and efficiency.
Todd Brimm is a first-line supervisor with the Louisville (KY) Metro Police Department and also served in the U.S. Army chaplain corps for four years. He currently serves as a Military Police Company Commander for a training battalion. Brimm holds a master of arts degree in criminal justice, a master of divinity degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is a graduate from the Academy of Police Supervision (DOCJT), the Southern Police Institute (AOC 131), and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.