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Supervisory Special: The art of positive comments

By Guest PoliceOne Columnist Sgt. Michael O’Brien
Brookfield (CT) Police Department

Most police supervisors will agree that the men and women under their command perform better and experience greater job satisfaction when they feel valued as employees and believe their work is being appreciated. In any discussion of the power of positive reinforcement, most police supervisors will agree that ongoing positive discipline is an important part of their leadership duties.

However, when called upon to actually practice the art of positive comments, many supervisors are strangely reluctant to give praise and appreciation to their troops. If an extraordinary event occurs they will do so, but on a routine basis they are unwilling to provide positive reinforcement.

Why is this?

The reason I’ve heard most often is: “I shouldn’t have to praise someone for doing their job.” The rationale behind this statement seems to be that a supervisor should not be expected to praise someone simply for handling the routine aspects of their job in a professional manner, because that’s what the employee is supposed to do.

Another reason I’ve heard at times is: “Save the praise for something special, otherwise it becomes meaningless.” While I agree that praising an employee constantly for everything they do throughout the course of the day is ridiculously excessive. Surely there is a reasonable middle ground between that extreme and the other, which is withholding your praise unless and until some extraordinary event occurs.

As police officers we have a difficult job and we work a difficult schedule. Just showing up for work day in and day out, serving and protecting the public as best we can while still making sure we go home in one piece at the end of our shift is hard work. Hard work deserves a pat on the back.

If your employees feel that they are valued and their work is appreciated, their job satisfaction will automatically increase. Their morale will improve. Their daily tasks, the same work that earns positive comments from their supervisor, will increase in quality because they will take more pride in that work.

In short, the quality of the services they render to their town or city will improve.

Regardless of whether you are a supervisor in a small town or a large city, the overall mission of your department is to provide police services to the town or city where you work. Your job as a supervisor is to manage the resources for which you are responsible in order to provide the best police services to your town or city. If the officers in a department feel valued and believe their work is being appreciated, the quality of the service they provide will increase.

By doing your part to increase morale and job satisfaction you are increasing the quality of the police services your town or city receives, which is your ultimate goal as a supervisor. It’s simply common sense.

Doing the routine things well is special and deserves a pat on the back. Don’t wait for something extraordinary to happen before you let your officers know you appreciate their hard work. Something as simple as a well-written accident report or a thorough investigation on a residential burglary shows that the officer is taking his or her job seriously and putting forth effort to do it well.

An officer who stays busy with traffic stops and business checks on an otherwise slow midnight shift is showing initiative and working hard. Let them know you have noticed their efforts and that you appreciate it.

Make sure that whenever you are making positive comments it is for a specific task or performance. Your officers want to know what you are praising them for, and you want them to know so that you can be confident you are motivating the proper behavior.

Vague compliments or generalities will be perceived as insincere and run the risk of lowering your officers’ morale instead of raising it.

As a supervisor, you know that if one of your officers is doing a sub-standard job it is your duty to spend some time and effort counseling them. Any conscientious supervisor would take the time to address that sort of problem, simply because that’s part of a supervisor’s job.

If you know that you are likely to prevent that sub-standard performance with some properly timed praise and positive feedback isn’t that part of your job too? Why wait for something to break and then be required to fix it when you can keep it running smoothly with a little preventative maintenance?

If you are willing and able to spend ten minutes counseling an employee after a poor performance doesn’t it make sense to spend thirty seconds counseling him or her before the task instead in order to increase the chances of a good performance?

Positive feedback is a long-term project, not one in which you should expect to see immediate results. Officers who have lived and worked without praise and appreciation for an extended length of time may be suspicious of your motives at first, half-expecting the other shoe to drop whenever you tell them they’re doing a good job.

Be patient and make it clear through your actions that this is the way it’s going to be from now on. The motivation behind your comments is not to get your people to improve the quality of their work. The motivation is to increase their job satisfaction and their morale by letting them know they are valued and their work is appreciated. The near-certain increase in the quality of their work is simply a bonus.

I strongly believe that in order for positive comments to have a positive effect they must stand alone. Using the old management trick of including a positive comment whenever a correction must be made is ineffective and should be done away with. The officer will come away from such an encounter remembering only the correction and will view the entire encounter as negative.

In order for the positive comments to carry any weight they must be given completely separately from any other comments, most especially not grouped together with negative comments or corrections.

Out of every ten feedback-type comments you give to one of your officers, at least nine of them should be completely positive. When officers get nothing but negative feedback from you it takes very little time for them to tune you out completely.

When you try to give them some feedback they may be listening, but they won’t be hearing you. Even if you try to give them positive feedback they won’t take it seriously if the majority of your comments are negative. Your officers should get to the point that when you call them into your office or meet up with them on the road they will expect it to be a positive encounter, because that is exactly what they have become used to over time.

Once that happens even a correction or an admonition regarding some kind of unacceptable behavior is going to be viewed in a positive way by the officer.

As previously mentioned, the biggest resistance I encounter to this style of leadership is: “I shouldn’t have to pat my officers on the back simply for doing their jobs.”

For all the supervisors who feel that way, perhaps it will help to look at it like this: On the desk in front of you is a button. By pushing it you will increase morale and job satisfaction in your unit, which will increase the quality of the police services your department is providing to your town or city. Pushing the button is absolutely free and takes virtually no time.

In the time it would take you to argue that you shouldn’t have to push the button because your officers are just doing their job, you could have already done something to improve your unit’s morale and the overall quality of their work.

Just push the button.


About the author

Michael O'Brien has been a police officer in Brookfield, Connecticut for the past eight years and a sergeant since 2004. He is a traffic crash reconstructionist and is in charge of the accident investigation team.

He is also one of the department's firearms instructors and copies of his lesson plans and courses of fire have been requested by dozens of police agencies throughout the country. He has always honored all such requests.

Michael has spent his entire career in patrol and is currently the midnight shift supervisor. He can be reached via email at: MOBrien@Brookfield.org.

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