'Attaboys' and 'aw sh*ts': How to accept cop criticism

The brain craves feedback and the soul craves affirmation — since we get a lot of the former and too little of the latter, how can we improve our positive-to-negative ratio?


I asked a police supervisor in a small department how they rewarded officers. He told me, “We don’t give ‘attaboys’, we only give ‘aw sh*ts’.” Hooray for institutionalized negativity!

The Harvard Business Review cites research that shows low-performing teams hear three negatives to each positive. The highest performing teams got six positives to every negative. Negative feedback is important — nobody improves by hearing that they are perfect in every way. However, positive affirmation is a crucial ingredient for success.

For all the psychobabble and narcissism masquerading as self-esteem, the truth of the human condition is that the brain craves feedback and the soul craves affirmation. It seems we get a lot of the former and too little of the latter. How can we improve our positive-to-negative ratio? Let me suggest a few strategies.

Reframe the Criticism
When you are the target of a comment that affects you negatively, your brain considers that a threat and your first response will be visceral and emotional. The sooner you can get your thinking brain engaged to look at the criticism rationally, the sooner you can resolve the distress these comments cause.

Is the criticism true, rooted in some truth, or completely bogus?

Let’s say the captain tells you that your last report was the worst she’s ever seen. A mature personality will assess the value of that kind of comment very quickly. If the criticism is true, then a life course correction — large or small — may be needed. Accept this as an opportunity for personal growth.

A criticism that is rooted in some fact often needs context. The captain in this case may be overreacting, making a passive-aggressive commentary on her feelings about you, or thinks that criticism is a motivator. You don’t have to accept the other person’s narrative. Accept the truth of it and reject the misperceptions.

A criticism that is baseless is entirely the problem of the person making the comments. Although it is hard to write people off — we are wired for equilibrium in relationships — sometimes you have to disregard the hurtful comment and stop pondering a defense.

Shrug it off and move on.

Lower Your Expectations
The twisted world of police work is almost designed to torture officers. Sometimes our best work generates the greatest criticism. Sometimes it goes completely unnoticed. Some of my most traumatic and heroic moments have taken place in complete anonymity.

If I expect a trophy every time, I’m going to be disappointed..

Pull In Or Pull Away
Although we don’t want to keep a record of grievances, it is healthy to do an assessment of whether criticism seems to come from a constant source. It may be time to communicate honestly with a major critic. Sometimes an objective third party should mediate.

The opposite strategy is to accept that this person is toxic and avoid him or her like the poison that they are. Discussing this distance with a trusted friend or counselor can be helpful, since the withdrawal can be almost as painful as the constant criticism.

Your Mirror Is Your Friend
Thankfulness is on our minds this season — Thanksgiving is just days away, after all.

I’ll be joining family around the table thanking God in the tradition of our tribe. In that context I’m also going to look in the mirror and thank myself. I won’t break my arm patting myself on the back, but I will repeat a familiar affirmation.

I’ll stand on the shoulders of all who have lifted me up, and step on the feet of all those who have tried to beat me down. I’ll say thanks to myself for serving, for doing my best, for being a little dash of salt in a world that needs it and a little light in the darkness. I’ll point my finger and wink, and tell myself, “I’m OK.”

I don’t serve for the voice of the critic.

I’ll say a prayer for all my colleagues whose lives have been taken or broken. I serve for them.

About the author

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy.. He is retired as Chief of Police for Adams State University in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults

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