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July 31, 2009
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Betsy Brantner Smith Survival Insights
with Betsy Brantner Smith

Conflict resolution, being a team player, and other stupid cliches

About a decade ago, my husband and I jointly authored our first police management article, “Avoiding the Abilene Paradox,” for Police Chief  magazine. We received such great feedback from that article that I began an unofficial, on-the-job study of the important role of conflict in successful organizations. I used some of what I had learned in 2004 when I presented a class called “Beyond The SWAT Team: Developing and Utilizing Teams Throughout Your Agency,” at the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers conference.  This is a class we continue to update and teach today. Using true conflict to build and strengthen a team, a unit, a shift, or an agency tends to be underutilized and misunderstood in police work and the private sector.

These days, there is a lot of buzz around the term “conflict resolution.” As a police supervisor, I was encouraged to attend several mandatory sessions put on by well-meaning human resource trainers teaching me how to “resolve conflict” with my managers, my employees, and my “customers” (read: the citizens). Hey, I’m all for learning great customer service skills, but when it comes to internal conflict, debate is essential to helping a team — or an entire organization — survive. Within an organization, conflict needs to be managed, not resolved. Unfortunately, in the typically rigid environment of your average police agency, debate is not particularly welcome. Why?

Let’s acknowledge that in a paramilitary organization, debate can sometimes be dangerous and unnecessary. Example: standing on the front porch of a crack house, about to ram in the door during a drug raid is an ideal time to follow the team leader’s directions, not debate him on the merits of his entry plan. If you didn’t like the entry plan, the time to say so was during the pre-raid planning meeting.

If you didn’t say something then, there’s a good chance you kept silent because:

a) you didn’t want to make the boss mad
b) you didn’t want to act as though you were trying to usurp his authority
c) weren’t confident enough in your own objections to bring them forward
d) there just wasn’t time for a productive discussion
e) some combination of the above possibilities

When there is time for debate (in this example, during the pre-raid planning meeting) it should be encouraged — not stifled. Conflict should be embraced, and one of the best ways to do that is to build an atmosphere of trust. If you’re a chief, sheriff, or other executive, your command staff members need to know that if they disagree with you an open meeting they won’t suffer for it now (by having you verbally humiliate them in front of the rest of the staff) or later (when you take half of their division’s training budget and give it to one of their peers; the one who doesn’t argue with you at meetings). Embracing and managing conflict really is one of those “top down” issues; it has to start with the team leader which in this case is the police executive. That executive has to view him or herself as a member of a team, not just “the boss.”

In Patrick Lencioni’s excellent book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, he talks about a lack of trust in your teammates as the first stumbling block to creating a cohesive unit.

The word “trust” has been used so much in context with team-building that to some extent it has lost its meaning. If you’re on high-risk entry team, trust is truly a matter of life or death. But in a typical police staff meeting people tend to be fighting more for career advancement and ego gratification that they are for their lives. In that situation, you may be on a “team” with people who are looking to get promoted over you, take over your division or your job, or even eventually replace the chief executive. This is not exactly a great atmosphere for trust to flourish.

This is where the boss is going to have to step up into a true leadership role by helping the team adopt a set of common goals, a realistic way to measure them, and then actually use those goals to help the team make decisions. The team leader is going to have to set their ego aside and make the collective ego of the team (and of the organization) a priority. Only then can the boss ask the rest of the team to do the same. This involves being a bit vulnerable — admittedly something most police executives are not particularly comfortable with — but it’s essential to the team’s success.

Building trust is not easy and it doesn’t come quickly. And let’s be honest: you’re probably not going to build it by going on one of those weekend retreats where you attempt to bond over a ropes course, only to come back and talk behind each other’s backs for the next week. There are some great exercises you can do to strengthen your team that don’t involve anything remotely resembling a ropes course. Getting to know each other’s personal history is one, using standard personality profiles is another.

Years ago, when my own unit was suffering from a lack of trust and cohesiveness, we brought in an outside facilitator to spend a day with us. This can be time and money well spent if — and this is a BIG IF — you bring in the right person. Our facilitator was competent, but was clearly taken aback by our profanity, our boisterous nature, and the fact that most of us were wearing large handguns. Try to find someone who specializes in law enforcement. At the very least, find someone who understands the nature of your particular team, and then make sure as the team leader you share your specific goals and expectations with them before your session begins.

Lastly, make sure that everyone on the team participates, especially you. You are the team leader, but you are also a member of the team, and this is going to be one of those times where you must — and please pardon the cliché — lead by example.

Once you begin to establish real trust in each other, then the team leader has to embrace and encourage true debate.

In part two of this article I’ll talk about why we love a good fight on the street but can’t stand conflict in the station, how to distinguish between unproductive personal attacks and passionate (and sometimes loud) debate that produces quick, effective results, and how using conflict can actually reduce the departmental politics that tend to plague our organizations and often keep us from getting real work done. In the mean time, I’d love to hear about your own team experiences, good and bad, because as always, we learn best from each other.


About the author

Sergeant Betsy Smith has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, retiring as a patrol supervisor in a large Chicago suburb. A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command and a Street Survival seminar instructor for more than 9 years, Betsy is now a speaker, author and a primary PoliceOne Academy consultant. Visit Betsy's website at www.femaleforces.com.

Contact Betsy Smith and Follow Betsy on Twitter





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