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Taking On Low Morale

We have the privilege of traveling to different parts of the country and to present our training Police Morale for Supervisors: It IS Your Problem! While it seems low morale is not uncommon anywhere, based on many conversations and correspondence, different regions do seem to have some specific and unique concerns. Nonetheless, we have found far more similarities among agencies in different places than differences.

First, and maybe foremost among supervisors, has been frustration with the newest generation of officers. When this topic is brought up we hear frustration verging on anger from the Gen-X and Baby Boomer bosses about their difficulties to responding to this new group of adults.

Second, we are hearing a theme of hopelessness about how to respond in this climate of more violent crime, increased officer deaths in 2010, a 33% increase in batteries against officers, and increasingly limited resources to meet the apparently increasing threats. These frustrations include supervisors facing reduced staffing, resources, and training while being expected to demand their troops provide the same level of service.

Another factor reducing morale is the sense of helplessness felt juggling tradition - the way things have always been done - with knowing changes are needed in a world that is changing around them. What this seems to be adding up to is a general culture of anger and resentment in the workplace which is going to create low morale. It is an old problem, but new solutions are needed in the face of challenges current practitioners of law enforcement have probably never faced before. A lot of the supervisors we talk to are frustrated; they know morale is down, they know they are being asked to do more and better with less, they know their officers are at greater risk of assault while feeling scrutinized for any perceived misstep, and they feel tremendous responsibility for the well-being of those under them. The pressure can be overwhelming, especially when they are being told that the morale of those they lead IS their problem!

In order to avoid being overwhelmed - and increase the likelihood of successfully turning around morale from bad to good in their own world - we give them the following challenges.

Think Micro instead of Macro

The first challenge we give participants is to take a micro, instead of a macro, approach to combating low morale. Most officers' answer to low morale is to begin naming all the ways the agency or administration needs to change. Every one of us who is not a chief or division commander has probably engaged, at one time or another, in the popular game of If only I was in charge around here! Well, some or all of those things we love to name that just need to change may be true but, unless you are top brass, forcing that change is probably not within your control or reach. When individuals focus on what they have no control over it only points blame, puts them in a victim role, and leads them to feel helpless, angry and resentful.

A proactive response is one that empowers an individual to take charge of how they choose to behave, think, and feel. As LEOs we see this routinely with domestic violence victims. They will tell you everything that is wrong in their relationship, demand something be done to make it better, but rarely take the initiative to make any changes that empower themselves or change their destiny. Again, the first challenge we ask of our participants is to focus on what they have the power to directly change now.

What do you control? What changes can you make to improve your own morale and that of your direct reports? Rather than obsess over those things you have no power over, focus first on the small world you do sit on top of, and determine where you do have power.

Personal responsibility

Another challenge we put out there is for them to take a look at their own morale. While the initial idea behind the training was to encourage supervisors to consider the impact of morale on those under them and to take responsibility for leading in a way that builds morale, it quickly became obvious that the supervisors we were meeting were often wrestling with their own low morale.

We ask our participants to assess their morale, to find what boosts their morale and what brings it down, and to determine what they have the power to change or control and what they must accept (at least in that moment, if not permanently) as out of their control.

The old proverb, Physician, heal thyself, is often interpreted as urging those who focus on helping others overcome their problems and shortcomings to first look within. It is well-heeded. How can a leader tend to their subordinates if not first squared away themselves? How can an example of managing morale be set by a leader if they cannot manage their own? Taking responsibility for your own morale is the first step in helping others with theirs.

Embrace change

Nothing endures but change

Change has a considerable psychological impact on the human mind. To the fearful it is threatening because it means that things may get worse. To the hopeful it is encouraging because things may get better. To the confident it is inspiring because the challenge exists to make things better.
-King Whitney, Jr

Change is going to happen and how we adapt to meet its challenges will largely determine our future personal and professional satisfaction. Unfortunately, a lot of people - and cops are no exception - resist the inevitability of change and become anxious or resentful, instead of excited and open. Anxiety and anger are key ingredients of low morale.

Whether the changes you face are those dictated by new and tightening budgetary constraints, legal decisions affecting how you do your job, evolving policies and procedures, or any other factors associated with the job, it does little good to remain stuck in the way things used (or ought) to be when the currents have already swept us downstream from that point. Instead, look to how best to do the job in the present future. You may just find new and better opportunities for policing.

Be creative

Creativity combats boredom, another common contributor to low morale. Whether you are a supervisor or line officer/detective, keeping things fresh for yourself or your direct reports is one of the surest ways to keep policing fun.

Creativity is bounded only by the limits of your own imagination, and if you pool your ideas with others those boundaries can be expanded. Look for ways to break out of ruts that lead to diminished morale by asking yourself (or those under you) What would make the job more fun? Then find ways to apply whatever answers you come up with.

Low morale is an age old problem; however, the solutions start with the individual not the agency. So if you were to take on the problem of low morale, where would you start?