Life in the Centerfold

After being asked to do some training for mid-level supervisors as part of a local chief's effort, I was discussing some management studies with a training partner. The concepts that have been tossed around lately describe the ranks of middle management as being overpopulated by a large number or difficult, self-important, middle-aged men who lack communication skills and are not team players. They are also described as grumpy, self-important, and difficult. My training partner, who is a close friend who happens to be a deputy chief and female, acidly stated to me, "Ain't that the truth." I thanked her for her input and reminded her that her deputy chief's uniform shirt was white because that was the primary color that most of us males like for household appliances. After I recovered from the blast of pepper spray, we actually had a civil discussion over ways to make improve training for people in the position.

One of the first things we determined to be true is that while they always say it is lonely at the top, the middle is lonelier because problems come from both directions. At either end of the spectrum, it is easier to point to the middle as where the problem is that needs fixing, because defecation flows downhill and 20/20 hindsight is a gift that is bestowed upon patrol officers when they graduate form the academy--at least, that is where I got mine. The biggest issue is that many middle management people have difficultly in relating to the many people-type issues that are required of them. Many of us were promoted into our positions because of our ability in the public eye to motivate and to get the job done. The skill sets needed to do this are different from the ones that a successful middle manager needs to get by in his world. As a sergeant, it was easy to tell some young patrol officer to get out there and lock up some miscreant with the "take no guff, cut no slack, hook and book-'em and don't look back" attitude. As a middle manager, having to explain or deal with the consequences of such advice to a chief or some other high ranking administrator requires a completely new way of thinking.

After several meetings and discussions, we came up with several ideas that we felt needed to be addressed. First is that our middle management people need to maintain a professional attitude for all the new duties they will be called upon to perform. While that should be understood, being a professional also means that you know the rules of the game. It is up to upper command staff to develop and explain what the rules are for them to be obeyed. Sometimes, for whatever reason, most often either by thinking that they will be learned by osmosis or immersion, this guidance can be lacking. They must develop the tools to influence command staff and become a bridge between them and the rank and file. Middle management must accept the fact that it can be confusing in the middle and not become timid or afraid to ask for information. The more information you have in theory the better equipped you will be to make effective decisions.

These are skills that are, more often that not, something that you are going to have to learn, as they are not genetically inherent in most of us. Educating people to them conforms to the old mantra that I learned back in the 20th century, that prior planning prevents poor performance. So as a result, we started thinking of the concepts that will improve management skills for the middle manager. We will work on developing team-building approaches and how it can apply to situational leadership. Understanding of some basic management concepts, such as the financial and budgeting process, are needed. I never got this until late in the game, but it can make a big difference in your actions. One of the other issues which have traditionally been learned on the fly when you got into these positions, but which have become more and more important, or maybe just more obvious, is the need to understand the human resources side of the position. The concepts of performance coaching, discipline, managing conflict, effective communication, and feedback skills linked to performance appraisals were absolutely alien to me when I got into the Twilight Zone called middle management People management is a skill that middle managers need desperately, but is often not the focus of any definitive efforts.

All these efforts are geared towards helping the middle manager avoid some of the worst pitfalls. Too many times, they develop a paralysis when they become unsure of what their role is in the department. Oftentimes, new and inexperienced middle managers can be likened to deer caught in headlights as they try to figure out what to do in a situation. They must develop a vision of the mission of their department that is consistent with that of upper command staff. Blurring the objectives of the mission to their respective groups only leads to confusion and process paralysis. Often this comes from becoming hard of hearing. While you would think this is sometimes a product of those freaking shoulder mikes we all had on our radios, it is more often a case of hearing only what we want to hear. This is something that is not necessarily just an affliction of middle management, but can be widespread throughout a department. However, at the middle management level it is a killer, because it reduces and filters the number of ideas that are considered, and gets in the way of producing results. It is imperative that we learn to check our egos and hear all the ideas from both sides to be effective as middle managers.

Middle managers have a truly unique role in the management of police departments. They hold a great responsibility for maintaining effective leadership and encouraging the growth and development of the people in their sections. Their effectiveness is a positive mark on the impact that the department will have in performing its mission to serve and protect their community.