How Do We Get Young Officers to Commit to the Job Like We Do?

"When I was your age" vs. "They just don't get it"

Across the nation Veteran (62 and older) and Baby Boomer (42 to 61 years) law enforcement leaders are sounding a refrain about Generation X (28 to 41) and Y (27 and younger) recruits and officers:

  • "They're not committed to the work."
  • "It's just a job to them."
  • "They feel entitled."
  • "They're not willing to pay their dues."

Ask the younger officers to describe their elders and you'll hear:

  • "Rigid."
  • "Inflexible."
  • "Married to the job."
  • "They don't get it."

Who do the Vets and Boomers sound like? Their parents! History isn't the only thing that repeats itself. So do generations. There have always been brash 20-somethings and there have always been elders to say, "When I was your age..." But there hasn't always been four generations sharing the same workplace. It's happening for the first time in history. And it's spurred a huge amount of research.

Understanding our own generational views and how they were shaped and the different values of other generations can be helpful in bridging the generational gap. Greg Hammill's informative online article, Mixing and Matching Four Generations of Employees, is summarily instructive. Mr. Hammill also reminds us that every generation thinks their way of seeing and doing things is the only right way--which isn't true--in personal or work life.

So let's look at a different way, because when the grumbling dust settles, Veteran and Baby Boomer law enforcement leaders sincerely want to know how to fully engage young recruits and officers in what, to the elders, is a calling, not just a career. Law enforcement leaders aren't the only ones facing this challenge. "Employee engagement" is a hot topic in private enterprise. Why? Because there's clear and mounting evidence that employee engagement correlates to individual, group and organizational performance in the areas of productivity, retention, turnover, customer service and loyalty. [Patricia Soldati, Employee engagement: What exactly is it?] And, employee disengagement is a national epidemic. [Building a Highly Engaged Workforce, Gallup Management Journal.]

What is a fully engaged officer?

A fully engaged officer:

  • Is attracted to and inspired by the work ("I want to do this").
  • Is committed ("I am dedicated to the success of what I'm doing").
  • Is interested ("I love what I'm doing").
  • Cares about the future of the department, the profession and the community.
  • Is eager to go beyond duty's call to ensure the department succeeds in its vision.

[Siejts and Crim, What engages employees the most or, The Ten C's of employee engagement, Ivey Business Journal Online.]

Wouldn't we all like recruits and officers like that? Recent research and practice is showing us how to get them.

Money Can't Buy You Love

Corporate America has known for nearly half a century that money doesn't fully engage people--doesn't emotionally connect them to their work so they perform beyond duty's call. In 1959, in his influential book, The Motivation to Work, Frederick Herzberg concluded that money can be a de-motivator if people believe they're not fairly compensated. But once people feel they're compensated fairly, more money doesn't inspire commitment, interest and exceptional effort.

Leaders need to pay attention to this. More recent studies show there's a significant gap between what leaders think motivate employees and what the workers know inspire them. In one such study, workers were asked to identify their top motivators while their managers were asked to predict what they would say. Managers predicted:

  1. Wages
  2. Working conditions
  3. Fair discipline

In contrast, the frontline employees said:

  1. Full appreciation for work done
  2. Feeling that they were in on things
  3. Sympathetic help with personnel problems

Other studies show people want:

  • To take pride in their work
  • Belong to a winning team
  • Be part of an organization they believe in

[Jim Clemmer, Beyond Manipulating and Motivating to Leading and Inspiring.]

So how do we get officers what they want--pride in their work and belonging to a winning team they believe in--which is also what law enforcement leaders want?

Getting Engaged Requires a Relationship

A relationship is based upon communication and communication is a two-way, give and take, sharing interaction. Corporate America, where the organization with the most engaged workers wins and the competitors are competed out of existence, has recently begun this dialogue by asking employees how engaged they are and what it would take to engage them more.

Employee Engagement Surveys are the second hot topic in American business. Plug those buzzwords into a search engine and you'll find a plethora of such surveys. And they center on what both employees and leaders want and need to feel they're an important part of a winning team they take pride in belonging to. Such surveys also turn the typical employee evaluation on its head.

Sample survey items officers would be asked to indicate their level of agreement or satisfaction with might include:

  • I have the right tools and equipment to do my job well.
  • I receive good training on how to do my job.
  • My job gives me the chance to do my best work.
  • The people I work with help each other when needed.
  • My co-workers and I openly talk about what needs to be done.
  • The people I work with do their best.
  • My supervisor treats me with respect.
  • I clearly understand what is expected of me.
  • My supervisor communicates well with officers, staff and citizens.
  • My supervisor is available when I need help.
  • My supervisor recognizes me when I do a good job.
  • I am proud to say that I work for this agency.
  • This agency cares about its employees.
  • This agency treats all employees fairly.
  • This agency makes me feel important to its success and the mission.

Asking officers questions to determine whether they are engaged and in what areas is a good start. But surveys alone won't fully engage officers. In fact, they'll do more harm than doing nothing if law enforcement leaders don't engage in the next step to a good relationship. Listen carefully, respectfully and sincerely to the feedback and then involve officers in an action plan.

An action plan might involve an initial one-half-hour group meeting where the survey results and what they meant were discussed (not told but discussed). The goals of a second, slightly longer group discussion might be for officers and supervisors to identify their own and the agency's respective strengths and improvement areas and then to prioritize ideas for accomplishing the improvements. An action plan would come from a subsequent discussion that reviewed improvement areas, shared improvement goals and set actions to accomplish them. Follow-up would occur in 90 days with the process being repeated as needed. [DecisionWise, Inc., Employee Engagement: Turning Employee Feedback Into Results.]

It takes two to tango

Before you set out to fully engage younger recruits and officers, take a test. Look at yourself in the mirror and ask, "How fully engaged am I?"

  • How inspired do I feel when I go to work?
  • How committed am I to the success of my officers and department?
  • How much do I still love the profession?
  • How emotionally connected am I to my officers and the department?
  • How often do I go beyond the call of duty to achieve the vision of policing and what specifically do I do?

If you're not fully engaged in policing, how can you hope to engage others? And if you've lost that engaged feeling, it's up to you to find it. That's what fully engaged leadership is all about. Here's a tip. Try taking a journey--back to when you first became a law enforcement officer. Remember that younger man or woman? He or she isn't a lost generation. In fact, they can't wait to be part of the future.