Supervising Strengths

By the power vested in me by the jurisdiction of ________, in the County of ________, and the State of ________, I’m the BOSS, DAMMIT!!! You WILL do to what I say!” Yeah, how is that working for you? There IS a better way to supervise.

That’s great, but what does this have to do with police supervision?

Quite a bit, actually.  If you’re a police supervisor or administrator you generally have at least some responsibility for the oversight, direction, motivation, evaluation, and discipline of subordinate officers.  That is not always an easy task.  Cops can be challenging in all those areas of responsibility, and finding an effective philosophy and style of leadership is important in order to be that good supervisor or administrator you want to be.

Unfortunately, a lot of supervisors take a deficit model approach to running their crew.  It starts with the boss setting an agenda with little or no input from his team, shift, division, or department, freezing out the voices and ideas of motivated employees.  The boss then determines how the goals of this agenda will be met with little consideration of how that strategy will impact the team, or whether it even meshes with the unique personalities and skill sets that make up the affected officers.  The boss tries to rally enthusiasm – or just assumes the enthusiasm will be there because, well, “I like it, and I’m in charge because of my superior intellect and skills, so surely they will love my plan, too!” – with mixed results.  At first, everyone goes along with the plan because it’s easier to acquiesce than debate, they want to please the boss, they hope eventually the agenda will be forgotten and they can go about doing their jobs the way they see fit, or out of loyalty to the hierarchy.

Eventually, though, if not everyone is on board with the bosses agenda dissent will creep in, the agenda will be gradually ignored – maybe subtly, but sometimes with a flagrant disregard toward the authority of the boss – and forgotten, and tension rises.  Previously motivated officers chafe under dictates made without seeking their input or considering their opinions, and motivation flees and productivity drops.  Morale dips and, in the worst cases, officers even act out their frustration.  Not only is the supervisory or administrative agenda not being followed, but now the boss’s attention is diverted by disciplinary issues.  And this is where our nascent “deficit model of police supervision” and all its shortcomings kicks in…!

The boss must now devote all energy to putting out fires rather than providing true leadership.  Deficits – poor work quality, decreased productivity, absenteeism, misconduct, low morale, and others - are attacked piecemeal, with a view toward stamping out one fire in order to move on to the next without ever really understanding the underlying issue from the point of view of the officers… or toward finding a better, more responsive, more effective way to supervise the unique individuals who make up the team.

Does any of that sound familiar?  Have you worked for or with a supervisor, or are you a supervisor now, who has ever had to run around wasting time and energy putting out fires all day, unpopular with officers, and wondering why?  Do you aspire to supervision and want to be the type of boss who brings out the best in your subordinates?  The deficit model of supervision seems easy (“By the power vested in me by the jurisdiction of ________, in the County of ________, and the State of ________, I’m the BOSS, DAMMIT!!!  You WILL do to what I say!”) but it’s really not.  There is a better way.

In our next column we will look more closely at how bosses can apply a strengths perspective to their supervision, and how doing so can increase both morale and the quality of work produced by their teams.


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About The Authors:

Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

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