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Morale Check-Up Pt II - Picking Your Battles

In last month’s column, A New Year Morale Check-Up (linked below) we left you with the following questions to help evaluate your level of morale.

“How is your morale doing?  What are the factors that contribute to your morale level?  If your morale is low, what is in your power to change or mitigate the things that bring it down?  So… How are YOU doing, really?”

Hopefully your morale is doing just fine; you love your job and cannot wait to get to work each day, you enjoy all your coworkers and the citizens you serve, and you’d gladly and unquestioningly follow your bosses through hellfire and back, and morale has never been an issue for you or your department.  Realistically, though….  Yeah.

This month, we go deeper into the task doing a “personal morale check-up” and the steps of beginning to mitigate those factors that work to lower it.  Using answers to the questions, “What are the factors that contribute to your morale level?” and “If your morale is low, what is in your power to change or mitigate the things that bring it down?” from last month, we can begin to take control of managing and improving our own morale.  The first step in doing so requires we take a hard, honest look at our own answers and then begin a process of triage to determine what we can and cannot fix, and how we’re going to go about it.  We’ve found that low morale among cops is often a self-perpetuating cycle:  The officers or supervisors experiencing it want and wait for something – anything – to change to make things better and, when nothing ever does, their morale dips even lower.  Their problem is one of unrealistic expectations; there simply are some problems that are not going to be fixed no matter how much wishful thinking is applied or bitching done.  Accepting this with a sense of humor, and learning to work around it, is one of the keys to improving your personal morale.

That’s where the idea of triaging the factors that lead to low morale comes into play.  Triage, as most of you probably know, is at its root a process in medicine wherein the priority and type of patients' treatments is determined based on the severity of their condition.  The most basic triage originated under French doctors during the First World War as they needed to decide what battlefield injuries to treat first, if at all, and came up with the following criteria for organizing trauma patients:

Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;

Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;

Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

Following the lead of trauma physicians since, we’ve borrowed the triage concept for determine how, if at all, to address the issues that are causing us to have low morale.  In order to do this, however, we’ll use our own system of triage for morale issues and apply it to those commonly encountered by cops.

Triage Level 1 – Stable, manageable, and tolerable

Most issues that affect morale are, if we’re really honest about them, rather minor annoyances.  Others are more significant than a mere annoyance, but can be tolerated if we choose tolerance, or mitigated through simple means.  Perhaps you have a supervisor who chooses to micromanage you, an experienced, competent, and proven officer.  That’s one of those things that certainly annoys, and may impact your morale.  Is it a fatal flaw on the supervisor’s part?  An issue worth going into a form of professional depression about?  An insurmountable problem?  Probably not.

The micromanaging boss is a common complaint of cops (and workers in all fields) but one that we often allow to dictate our happiness and ultimate job satisfaction despite their often fleeting or limited impact.  To be fair, the problem employee who requires a disproportionate amount of oversight is a common – and often quite legitimate - complaint of supervisors at all levels, too.  But bosses (and problem employees) come and go, later you may find yourself under a dream boss (or supervising a dream team), or you may just come to find a tolerable balance between your different styles and expectations.  The point is, what are those minor issues we allow to attack our morale, and is it possible to simply tolerate them without giving them disproportionate power over our lives and happiness?

You’ll need to determine what concerns fall into Triage Level 1 and how you’ll manage them.  Every one of us face a multitude of these each day; those who learn to manage them well can maintain high morale, and those who don’t will be dragged down by what are ultimately often just annoying trivialities.

Triage Level 2 – Circling the Drain

In 1984 I enrolled in college as a chemistry major.  The sciences and technology were being pushed heavily, especially for students who had shown an aptitude for them in high school, with promises of a shining future in lucrative and exciting careers.  Up to that point I had done very well in the advanced science and math classes I had taken, the thought of a life as a scientist of some sort was enticing, and my teachers and guidance counselor were optimistic I’d continue to flourish once I reached the halls of higher learning.  So I was full of excitement and eager to start down the road toward that “shining future” with great confidence.

It was an utter disaster.  At least the math and science portion was.  I really enjoyed most of the other classes I was taking, and my grades were solid in just about everything except my science and math classes.  My GPA plummeted, dragging my self-esteem with it.  I had been at the top of my class academically from Kindergarten through high school, and that identity was crumbling along with the future I’d envisioned.  Despite enjoying most aspects of college, my morale bottomed out.

Many college students have similar experiences; their first major (or two) isn’t what they expected it would be, no longer holds their interest, or exceeds their natural aptitude.  It was all three for me.  Most students have the common sense to cut loose from the mismatch quickly and forge a new path.  Not me!  Nope, I was going to stubbornly plug away because… well, there really was no good “because.”  I was just stupid that way.  It took me two full years – and the realization that, even if I turned my grades around, a career in science would probably make me miserable anyway - to finally realize switch to something I actually wanted to study. 

The point is we often hold tight to hopes that something is going to get better when all the evidence argues against it, or that if we try just a little bit harder we’ll overcome some obstacle or shortcoming.  The same thing applies in law enforcement and we have a tendency to be stubborn in the face of even overwhelming odds.  Sometimes that’s admirable, but occasionally it’s just dumb!  Some things are simply not to be.  Knowing when to change course is key to preserving our morale. 

Triage Level 3 – Critical issues requiring immediate attention

Unlike the concerns of Triage Levels 1 and 2, which will usually benefit from a change of perspective or taking a completely different tack, what you find under this category are those concerns of grave importance.  While most matters fall under one of the first two levels, what you’ll place here are serious and immediate threats to your job, your physical and emotional health, your personal or department’s reputation, or the moral or ethical code you live under by oath or by choice.  Although really quite rare, these issues demand your urgent attention, or that of someone with the power to overcome them.

It’s common to lump all of those things that batter away at our morale in one category, and then become overwhelmed by the combined size of the pile.  Triaging them helps us maintain perspective; not everything is critical or needs to be handled with the same urgency, and some things we can just let go.  Knowing what are most important – and you already know what are most critical – and putting those into Triage Level 3 allows you to see threats to morale in a more manageable way.

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Next month we’ll conclude this series on A New Year Morale Check-Up by taking a closer look at those issues you’ve placed under Triage Levels 1 and 3, and discussing some basic strategies to overcome them. 

Stay Safe and Have Fun.  Because, remember, THIS JOB IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN!