by Chief Dan Flynn, Marietta Police Department
Recruiting sufficient numbers of new police officer applicants who are physically, mentally and morally fit to serve always has been a challenge. Today, however, it is more difficult than ever, mainly as a result of anti-police bias in the mainstream news media. Many employment decision-makers and administrators feel the only way to counter negative hiring trends and fill mounting numbers of police vacancies is by increasing salary and incentives, and sadly in some cases, lowering hiring standards. In the short run, these kinds of strategies may help a little, but too many police agencies continue to have large numbers of vacancies even after implementing these changes. With so many unfilled positions, remaining officers have to pick up the slack and often suffer burnout and all of its negative consequences.
Consider that many of the 20-40 year old age group were educated in an atmosphere where everyone who participated in a sport received a trophy, win or lose. Meanwhile, parents told their growing children how special they were, whether they were or weren’t; and teachers and college professors told them they each had the potential to change the world overnight. Therefore, it is no wonder that those who aspire to careers in public safety become disillusioned when they learn in advance of applying, or shortly after being hired, of old style managers and supervisors who are quick to get in their faces and correct them, sometimes in harsh terms even in routine situations. In reality, the 20-40 year old group is prone to ask more questions and expect answers, and they are accustomed to receiving positive individual attention with better two-way communication than their predecessors. It is not that the newest group(s) can’t become strong, dedicated, patriotic police officers, it is just that we need to communicate with them in a different way. Remember, police departments do not have the rank of private. Privates in the military are not expected to ask questions; officers are.
Management theories have long contended that if salary and benefits are inadequate or non-competitive, they will hinder employee motivation and productivity; however salary and benefits will not, by themselves, attract new applicants to apply, nor improve morale among existing members of a police department. In order to better attract today’s potential police applicants to want to join, police departments must modernize leadership and management styles to match the expectations of today’s 20 to 40 year-old group. The days when autocratic, predominantly work-centered, leadership and management styles were effective and responsive to employee needs are rapidly fading in modern times.
In terms of leadership style, both existing and prospective police employees understand and accept that leadership needs to hold police employees accountable for their job performance, particularly regarding the way they treat the public. Nevertheless, today’s prospective police employees are attracted to leaders who routinely exhibit and communicate qualities such as teamwork, mentoring, fairness in all matters internal and external, reasonable diversity and professional demeanor. Today’s new employees tend to be disappointed when they see a lack of these qualities and in fact, no one seeks or admires leaders who act like self-centered critical parents.
Individual leader behaviors that best resonate and motivate the present generation of potential police employees, and for that matter police officers of all ages, include leader behaviors that help employees satisfy their self-esteem needs. For example, leaders who provide frequent, ample, detailed formal recognition for good work make employees feel better about themselves and their jobs. At the same time, leaders who provide reasonable sympathetic understanding of employees’ personal (human) problems tend to build loyalty and camaraderie consistent with desirable family relationships. In addition, leaders who actively work to keep employees “in the loop” regarding activities of their organization help their employees feel they are part of the organization rather than the hired help; it reduces rumor mills and promotes camaraderie. When applied with consistency, all of these kinds of leader behaviors are congruent with the perceptions and expectations of today’s police applicants. Most importantly, they appeal to potential applicants when they are checking out police departments in advance of applying for employment.
Effective police leaders understand that the attitude of an individual is a reflection/indicator of how that individual feels, while morale is the way a group feels. Thus, strong leaders strive to be positive, decisive and use good oral and writing skills to communicate their positive vision of policing. They also work to instill motivational management practices and behaviors in their subordinate leaders in order to promote good morale, which in turn foster better recruitment and retention of police officers in larger police organizations.