Problem children: Dealing with whiney, crybaby malcontents in your ranks
By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)
OK, OK, I get it — apparently I need to balance myself on opinion, so here it goes.
I’ve written a couple of articles over the past several of months about lousy supervisors, crummy commanders, stupid policies and micro-managing bosses. Not surprisingly, in response to those articles, I have received a few (okay, a lot of) e-mails from officers around the country who found themselves compelled to share their own tales of supervisor horror stories.
I also received a number of e-mails from my fellow supervisors who wished to broach the subject about the other side of the managerial abyss: problem employees. You know: the slugs, the call-dodgers, and the case dumpers. The guys that make traffic stops seconds after being assigned to hot, complicated, cluster calls. The guys that don’t hear the radio when jobs come out in their areas. The gals (equal rights here) that “milk” basic calls and hide in the station all night. The bike officers that disappear for eight hours at a time. The officers that talk a big game but haven’t actually made an arrest in ten years. The K-9 officer that can’t come to work because his dog just ate another tennis ball.
One sergeant summed it up best: “I’d say that 90 percent of my guys are good, solid officers...but 10 percent of them are problem children: whiney, cry baby, malcontents that spend more time complaining than doing the job. What about them? They wear my ass out!”
Good question and observation. I do have to admit that I’ve been pointing the spotlight at the ineffective managers that have a tendency to suck the life out of both employees and organizations. But what about those line-level officers who do exactly the same thing? These employees do very much exist, and everyone knows exactly who they are. And it isn’t always the supervisor's fault...or is it?
We have all been saddled with the whiners, the trouble makers, the officers who lack common sense, the cops who are unaware of their own incompetence, and the brickheads that argue about one line of their evaluation while being totally clueless to their complete uselessness. Isn’t their collective and continued existence still a by-product of poor leadership?
I really don’t want to misplace blame and excuse inexcusable behavior, but how does such conduct exist and thrive in an organizational setting? Only one way: it’s allowed to.
Listen, I want to be liked by those in my charge. I admit it. I’m guilty. But I’m not liked by all those in my charge, and I’m fine with it because it ain’t my job to win popularity contests. My job is to lead officers in a direction designed to accomplish the overall mission of the organization. My responsibility is to teach, evaluate, coach, counsel, train, listen, encourage, create a climate of trust, and above all keep them safe. In order to do all of these things, I have to make decisions, hopefully balanced and sound decisions, but decisions nonetheless. And when you are the guy/gal making decisions for groups of law enforcement officers, one or two of those officers will unquestionably disagree, experience unhappiness, and on the very rarest of occasions, actually complain.
Here is the point: sometimes officers use poor judgment and make a variety of mistakes, boo-boos and blunders. These mistakes can be dealt with fairly easily, and the skill is in the supervisory approach. It is important that errors be addressed in a measured and appropriate manner. Contrary to what some supervisors believe, an officer’s overall performance, effort, attitude and results absolutely need to be taken into consideration. So when addressing a blunder, sometimes a perturbed look will suffice. But sometimes a conversation with documentation is necessary. In my experience, 95+ percent of mistakes made are minor and should be addressed in a low-key fashion.
In my management and leadership classes I’ve categorized employees as belonging to one of these four groups:
1. The Self-Motivated
2. The Journeymen
3. The Bare Minimums
4. The Unproductive
For the purposes of this article let’s look at Group #4: The Unproductive. Now, some less-educated managers refer to this group as the Assholes, which is totally inappropriate. These unproductive workers are still human beings, and therefore should never be labeled in such a crude and politically incorrect way. I myself have never actually heard any supervisor use this term, but I am told it occurs on occasion in some far-away lands.
There are two reasons for someone belonging to this group: general incompetence and/or conscious disregard. Either way, their existence in an organization can not be allowed to go unchallenged. Serious mistakes or obvious patterned incompetence must be addressed and documented. To pretend it isn’t happening is akin to organizational suicide. Ignoring the issue and hoping "it will all work out" is not the right attitude, either. Moreover, repeated warnings and direction with no consequence for failure to comply, or correction of inadequacies, creates an entitlement attitude in the employee that will eventually have a negative affect on unit synergy (teamwork). Because then all the working cops will know who the slug is, and they''ll want management to do something about him/her.
I admit that I, along with my fellow supervisors, have violated the most basic of rules once or twice myself. And most of the time it was because the officers weren’t purposely being jerks, but they were unquestionably incompetent. I’ll combine a couple of cases using a completely fictitious example to try and make a point.
This employee, we’ll call Bill Bupkiss, was a generally clueless police officer, but appeared as though he was trying. So we worked with this guy to the point of exhaustion: gently pointing out mistakes, giving him positive assurances and even giving him specialties in hopes that he would become a little more confident. Collectively as a supervisory group we got to the point where were literally begging the officer to improve and adhere to “suggestions.” (We didn’t call them “orders” as the word orders seemed to be just a little too harsh and we didn’t want to fracture this officer’s fragile psyche.)
But we were stupid. The guy was not only totally incompetent, but he was clueless to the reality and depths of his incompetence. And it was because of us. Instead of orders and consequences, we encouraged him to improve and praised him for inconsequential accomplishments. Not only did this foolish technique not work, it backfired. Besides the fact that the working cops thought we were nuts, ver the years this officer actually wound up believing that he was entitled to his established work ethic. He astonishingly believed that he was doing great, so when we finally held him to agreed-upon work standards he became delusional and obstinate. And it was 100 percent our fault as supervisors. We created this inept and dense whiney monster.
Bottom line: leaders need to lead. Treat employees with dignity and respect, engage them, be involved, coach, counsel and train them. Let them know that you view them as valuable human beings and assets to the organization. Focus and assign for talent. And finally, create a climate of trust. Trust is the foundation of an effective team.
But don’t be blind to the reality that a small percentage of employees will have problems. Whether those problems are because of genuine incompetence or are due to adult behavioral issues, your job as a supervisor is to deal directly and effectively with anyone in a position to destroy team cohesiveness. Understand that when you allow poor performance to continue, you actually encourage employees to fail. And such failure will eventually lead to team toxicity and, ultimately, mission failure.