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Supervising Strengths - Part II

“Sarge… you wanted to see me?”

“Yeah, I did, Barry. I gotta talk to ya about something, here. Listen, the lieutenant and I, uhhh… we’ve been going over everyone’s activity and stats this last quarter and we’ve… uhhh… we noticed something concerning with your numbers and all, you know? Your stats, Barry, they’re kind of low lately. Actually, for quite awhile now, they really aren’t what the LT and I are looking for from the shift.”

Barry felt a slight jolt, a tiny surge of adrenaline over what he suspected – no, knew – was coming next. “Sarge, look, I know we had this talk a couple months ago and I think I’ve stepped it up with the traffic stops and community contacts, just like you both asked, but I’m not coming to work and screwing off. I work hard; you know that!”

“Barry, no one says you don’t work hard. We just question are you working smart for this shift, you know? It’s not just you, either; we have to have the same conversation with Carson and Potts and Lawrence, too. You all worked under Lt Quarles before, and he did things the way he did and it was good for him, but we have a different focus here, a different motivation. You’re all stepping up a little bit, like we asked, but it’s still…”

“What about all my arrests, Sarge? What about the cases I hold onto and work? What about the ‘Attaboys’ from the Financial Crimes dicks for all the cases I clear that they don’t have to mess with? It’s not like there are any more crashes in my beat than anywhere else in the county. It’s not like I’m blowing my calls off all day long on other deputies - like some guys on this shift - but they get away with it ‘cause they bring in six easy tickets everyday come hell or high water…” (Easy, Barry, easy… stop while you’re ahead! Whoops, too late).

“Okay, Barry, that’s just it! You’re. Not. A. Detective. Got it? The LT says, and I agree, this is a PATROL unit and you – and Carson and Potts and Lawrence, too - are expected to act like PATROL deputies. Got it? Take your calls, write up the initial reports, kick ‘em to the dicks, and move on. Got it? Write more tickets – six a day would be a good start, in my opinion! – and cut the fancy stuff. We’re getting our butts kicked, numbers-wise, by some of the other squads and the LT is very unhappy. You know he wants the Traffic command when it comes open in a couple years; his readiness is reflected in his team, right? It’s my job to make him happy and you and your little “detective wannabe” buddies are going to help me do that, aren’t you? Or will we need to take this matter beyond the “friendly little chat stage?”  

Nearly choking with rage, Barry bit back his next words, finally muttering only, “Got it, Sarge. I got it.” He loved being a cop. He loved patrol and the car and the uniform and helping people. He also loved numbers and detail and puzzles… he had double-majored in Accounting and Information Technologies and worked in finance before joining the Sheriff’s Department looking for greater excitement and adventure. Under Quarles for nearly four years, he was allowed to spread his wings, hold onto some of the fraud cases and put his education and experience to work. He had a ball and hopes of someday joining Financial Crimes full-time. Now…? Investigative spots were hard to get and some other lieutenants wanted and encouraged their crews to be well-rounded; those would be the deputies he’d be going up against for investigations assignments.  

“Good, Barry. Good. Okay, hit the road, let’s start hearing you call out some more stops. Bring in some of those citations the boss loves to see. And forward me whatever you’ve done on any open cases you have; I’ll kick ‘em to the dicks so you won’t have to worry about that anymore. Sound good?”

“Yeah Sarge, sounds great…” And Barry shuffled out of the office, a sour ball forming in the pit of his stomach.


As we’ve studied the topic of morale and worked to apply what we’ve learned to our writing and teaching while focusing on the law enforcement community in particular, we’ve found and drawn heavily from solid, empirical research conducted by a number of business and leadership experts. Of course, we have our own opinions gleaned from years in our respective and various trenches as both leaders and led, informed by and supported by our formal training and education, but still it is always best to seek the views and perspective of others to weigh our subjective feelings and opinions against.

One such set of research we have come to respect and rely on greatly was an extensive, 30-year study of employee engagement conducted by the Gallup organization and looking at over 17 million employees in hundreds of different organizations. From this and related studies of employee engagement and satisfaction, management, and motivating workers, came several best-selling books, two of which we’ll list here: First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest managers Do Differently (Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman) and 12: The Elements of Great Managing (Rodd Wagner & James K Harter, PhD). Marcus Buckingham was, at the time his books were published, a senior vice president of the Gallup Organization and a disciple of Donald O Clifton, Ph.D., considered the “Father of Strengths Psychology.” Harter is a psychological scientist and researcher with Gallup.  

These books are rich with information for bosses and subordinates alike, and we highly recommend them to anyone interested in maximizing effectiveness and morale at work, either for themselves or those they supervise. From First, Break All the Rules… Buckingham and Coffman were able to determine seven things the best managers do that separate them from the ordinary. These seven qualities are:

  1. The best managers reject conventional wisdom (they are willing to think “outside the box” with creative planning and solutions),
  2. The best managers treat every employee as an individual (they understand and respect different points-of-view, temperaments, aptitudes and allow their employees to be unique),
  3. The best managers never try to fix weaknesses, choosing instead to focus on strengths (they promote success through existing strengths instead of trying to mold employees into something they are not),
  4. The best managers know they are on stage every day (their subordinates watch them very carefully, adjusting their behavior and performance accordingly),
  5. The best managers know measurements of employee satisfaction are important to an organization’s stakeholders ( in the LE setting, dissatisfied employees equal dissatisfied administration, citizens, elected officials, etc),
  6. The best managers know that “people leave their immediate supervisors, not the organization,” (employees quit working – literally or figuratively – and producing when they are dissatisfied or disgusted with their direct supervisor, and are much less affected by decisions and actions, whether positive or negative, made at the top levels of management), and
  7. The best managers create a work environment where employees can positively answer 12 key questions (we’ll come back to these shortly).

We’re not suggesting line supervisors, shift commanders, or administrators should squelch the ideas and direction they envision in favor of a lackadaisical “do whatever you want” management style. Setting a clear course is an important leadership prerogative and subordinates want you to do just that. But they also want that prerogative to be exercised with care and regard for how it affects them as employees, and taking their interests and skills into consideration.

If you are a supervisor now you probably have under your watch a variety of personalities, possessing a range of talents and aptitudes, embodied in a group of cops of marked diversity, all looking to you for not just management but leadership. This will likely be a demanding group. They’ll be willful, opinionated, self-confident, and challenging. Hey, they’re cops… that’s exactly why they were hired for this job, so what did you expect? Are you, at best, a decent manager? Good luck. But if you can be both one of the “most effective managers” and a true leader they’ll fall in love, and being a leader is what the seven qualities listed above are all about.    

Consider the opening vignette in view of these seven things the most effective managers do. How do Barry’s sergeant and lieutenant stack up? Considering the seven above, are they:

1)     Thinking “outside the box?” - Reliance on empirical measures of “good police work” is easily measurable but tends to discourage subordinates who work that is high quality, but not readily quantifiable. Being “numbers motivated” can burn those whose contributions are significant but subjective.

2)     Treating him as an individual? - Do they recognize his efforts to conform to their expectations, while respecting his unique abilities and contributions to the team? Are they acting with his best interests in mind, considering he’d someday like to become an investigator and particularly a financial crimes investigator, and allowing him to pursue those interests?

3)     Focusing on his strengths and how they can enhance his work as a deputy? Or are they looking at what he doesn’t do as well as they do, or would like him to do, and focus instead on remediation of perceived weaknesses?

4)     Aware of how they are being perceived by Barry (and, presumably, other subordinates) because of their behavior and demands, and of the potential long-term consequences of that perception?

5)     Concerned about how Barry’s (and, presumably, other subordinates) satisfaction will impact and influence stakeholders they should be concerned about?

6)     Aware, or do they care, that the consequences of their supervisory style and expectations may have detrimental long-term effects? Bosses can bully employees into short-term results that are, over time, unsustainable if the employees quit on them either figuratively or literally.

7)     Creating an environment where their subordinates can answer “Yes” to most or all of the following questions (the Q12)?:

Engaged & Productive Employees Answer “YES” to the Following Questions 

  1. Do I know what is expected of me?
  2. Do I have the material and equipment I need to do my job right?
  3. Do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone else from work, care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone who encourages my professional development?
  7. Do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the organization’s mission/purpose make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?

10. Do I have a best friend at work?

11. In the last six months, has someone talked to me about my progress?

12. In the last year, have I had the opportunity to learn and grow?

Morale is critical to the success of a police department. Building and holding onto high morale should be important to bosses at all levels, and depends largely on whether they know and understand – and respect – the strengths of those they supervise.  

In our next article – and final installment in this series on “Supervising Strengths” - we will pull everything together as we look at how a supervisor can apply a “strengths perspective” to supervising a squad of police officers.


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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.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.