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Implementing Strengths-Based Supervision

I was dumbfounded. 

It wasn’t that people disagreed with my strong opposition to what I saw as an appalling, if not unethical and potentially dangerous, idea.  I’m okay with disagreement and I’d better be - I’m as likely to be the dissenting voice in the room as anyone and expect mature, intelligent people to be okay with that – but I wasn’t okay with the form it took.

I was astonished at the anger directed toward me for voicing my concerns, how dismissive so many were of my opinion, and at how easily cowed were others I knew agreed with me in the face of what they were witnessing.  But I was still okay with all that.

What really got to me, and what set the stage for my own (admittedly too sharp and deliberately insolent) response, was the easy dismissal of all my education, all my experience, all my extensive, graduate level academic research on the topic at hand, and all my willingness to work hard toward effective and ethical changes in favor of the rather dubious expediency we were about to adopt.  What really got to me was the condescending dismissal of the considerable strengths I brought to the table.  I was by no means an expert in all things, no doubt and few of us are, but this…          

And then words got ugly, feelings were hurt, egos bruised, and relationships changed.


The whole episode lasted just minutes but the impact was huge and, in some ways, even reverberated for years.  Failing to see or be aware of your subordinates’ unique strengths is a morale breaker.  Having awareness of them and choosing to ignore or discount them is worse, and can have severe repercussions.

In this final installment in our series on Supervising Strengths we will provide the basic framework to begin supervising strengths, and hopefully emphasize how doing so can, despite demanding some really hard work up front, benefit you, the people you supervise, and the department and community you serve.

Get to (really) know your subordinates

This is a no-brainer; of course, you should get to know your subordinates!  That’s just common sense, right?  Okay, on to the next point…

Not so fast.  For something so seemingly commonsense it is also seemingly uncommon, at least in law enforcement.  We hear from a lot of officers, and even some with rank, that a boss actually getting to know the people under them is, in their experience, often a low or nonexistent priority.  Or that it’s commonly believed having a superficial knowledge – maybe the kind you’d pick up from casual “smokin’ & jokin’” breaks or grabbing a beer after work - is sufficient; knowing Joe has three kids, a wife named Cindy, likes Belgian beer and duck hunting, and worships the ground Aaron Rodgers walks on is cool, but does it help you actually bring out his best as his supervisor?  We’re learning that superficiality is nice enough, and maybe well-intentioned, but inadequate.  To be an effective strengths-based supervisor you need to really get to know Joe. 

What is Joe’s favorite aspect of being a cop?  His least?  What kind of calls or cases excite him and makes him feel vital?  On these questions everyone is different; some of your cops will love working directed-enforcement traffic details, while others are bored to drooling by the mere thought.  Others are “rapid response” sorts, living for the hot call and then moving on to the next, while others are more deliberate.  Some love detective work but, even in dedicated investigative divisions, you’ll find different detectives thrive on different aspects of the investigative process.  Still others are gifted communicators and educators, outgoing and eager to work directly with the public, or skilled working with kids.  And while it’s true many large departments have dedicated units where people can find their niche, not everyone will go to those units and can still utilize their gifts and skills wherever they are assigned. 

What are Joe’s academic or military backgrounds, the trainings he’s attended (and the kinds he wants to attend), his outside interests, unique skills, and philosophy of policing?  Is he an extravert or an introvert?  The distinction might mean a lot.  What does he know or do well that he can put to use on the job, or teach to others to enhance their skills, or simply keep “in his back pocket” until it’s needed?  That he is a self-educated expert on absolutely everything to do with Star Trek collectibles may never once matter in his career, but what if you someday need an expert on Star Trek collectibles?  Bonus! 

You can ask your team to each provide a complete resume to answers these questions and then, working in conjunction with them, determine what strengths they possess that can enhance their effectiveness, enjoyment, and teamwork on the job.  Work directly with then to creatively apply their talents for their good and the good of the agency.  Force yourselves to think outside the box.  For you, as a supervisor, having a deeper knowledge of your direct reports reveals the fullness of resources available to you and the department… if you use them wisely.

Develop a supervisory plan based on what you know

If you do take the time to learn all this about your people and proactively engage them in discussions of how their gifts and skills can be used, you had better follow thru.  Employees are finely attuned to the sincerity and willingness to follow thru of their bosses and, if they see your actions and words as essentially empty of substance, or well-intentioned but doomed to poor execution, their trust in you will falter and morale will sink. 

How many of us have been asked about our “five-year plan” or “where do see yourself going in the agency?” and “how can we help you get there?” so many times but with so little interest in the answer or actual help toward achievement that the questions are but insincere banality?  We easily lose trust, interest, and hope.  But every so often we get a boss who asks us with a sincere interest in the answer, and who puts forth effort to help us toward out goals.  Morale soars, productivity rises, and people are reinvigorated.  Be that boss. 

Developing a supervisory plan and holding yourself accountable to its execution and goals is indispensable.  This plan should address not just how you will utilize your people, and in what circumstances, but also how to further develop and refine their skill sets.  One of the key components of strengths-based policing is facilitating professional development; if you have someone who is particularly computer-literate on and off the job, and who can use computers more effectively and efficiently than her peers, then put her in contact with people who know even more than she does and can take her to the next level.  Help move her from good to great to superlative!  If you have a gifted gun handler and shooter, perhaps he’d like to become an expert in the firearms themselves or a teacher of others.  Help him find schools and become an advocate for his development.  Or maybe you have someone on your team who is a more right-brained, creative who sees the world with a different perspective.  Often, these are the folks who find unique solutions where the more conventional get stuck.  How can they be encouraged, developed, and best employed? 

It’s best to work with your individual team members – giving them the lion’s share of responsibility for determining their paths - on their individual development; allowing as much self-determination as you can gives them ownership of it and improves the odds of success, whereas deciding and dictating your wishes for them can backfire badly!  But once that is done, and you know how they are interested in utilizing their strengths, it is your prerogative to write your own team plan determining how you will meld your group of unique individuals into an effective and functioning unit.  

Look for and redirect any misfits, if appropriate

Every team, every unit, and every department has its misfits, those members who just don’t fit in with the culture, mission, or job description for some reason or another.  That is not meant to disparage them at all, and the fact is every one of us would certainly be a misfit on different departments, units, or even teams on the same watch.  No problem, for the most part, but as a supervisor you may need to know when and how to redirect an occasional misfit.

In some cases, the problem is clear:  one of your team members is clearly in the wrong assignment and needs to be urged elsewhere.   This may be especially true if you head a specialty unit (SRO, detective, traffic, etc) and the member’s personality, temperament, or interest is inconsistent with the work, or if the skill set necessary simply isn’t there and no amount of remediation is going to help.  For the maximum effectiveness of your team, the misfit officer’s happiness, and your sanity do everyone a favor and point out greener fields in others areas of the department. 

But in other instances, parting ways simply may be impossible or the problem is one that can be fixed through motivation, creativity, a different supervision style, or a less drastic realignment of the team member’s duties and expectations.  Knowing your best response is vastly helped by getting to really know your team.

Occasionally reevaluate your team and goals

Periodically reevaluate your team.  People come and go, especially in larger departments where assignments frequently change, and evolve.  As young officers mature into more seasoned veterans and veterans mellow with age and experience, that what grabs their interest changes.  You’re surely not the same cop you were five, ten, fifteen years ago and neither are they.  Strengths-based supervision is an ongoing process.

The benefits of Strengths-based Supervision

Truly knowing and engaging the strengths of your team in supervision style offers myriad benefits.  Recognizing and engaging the diverse talents each brings enhances their effectiveness (and makes their boss look good, too!), improves morale, promotes improved teamwork, expands your unit’s capabilities, and better serves the public.  Despite requiring more involved supervision in the beginning of the process, as you get to know your people and plan your supervision strategy, it should make you job easier in the long run, and allow you to become a more creative boss in your own right.

And did we mention, it makes the boss look good, too?


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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.