How to stop bad seeds from taking root in your agency

There are enough major scandals and gaffes in law enforcement under today’s public scrutiny that we often forget that major issues start as unattended weeds


This article originally appeared in the September 2018 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Stopping bad seeds | Sexual harassment | Body armor policy, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions

In my part of the great American Southwest there’s a terrible weed called tribulus terrestris. Roughly translated it means “pointy weapon of the earth.” We call them goat heads because of their shape and pointy horns. These burrs are worse than their cactus neighbors because they hitch a ride on clothing and drop strategically inside the house in places most likely to be traversed by bare feet. I find it no coincidence that the devil himself is often symbolized by a goat’s head.

After spending a good bit of time wrestling them from my yard, I began to think about the ease with which they seem to exist. Unlike the green grass I try to nurture and grow, or the tiny tremulous tomato plants I fed and watered, the pernicious weeds just got haphazardly dropped in the worst soil on the property and settled in for a long season.

Bad seeds in your agency can prove just as treacherous as weeds like tribulus terrestris. (Photo/Forest & Kim Starr via Creative Commons)
Bad seeds in your agency can prove just as treacherous as weeds like tribulus terrestris. (Photo/Forest & Kim Starr via Creative Commons)

During my time as a supervisor I have observed and experienced bad seeds developing in an organization. I once allowed a nest of interpersonal conflicts in my staff to resolve on its own, only to find it had grown out of control. I regretted not nipping it in the bud the first time I saw evidence of it, or, perhaps more importantly, tending my organizational garden more carefully to avoid the invasive seed to take root at all.

There are enough major scandals and gaffes in law enforcement under today’s public scrutiny that we often forget that major issues start as unattended weeds.

Here are some observations that occurred to me as I stabbed at those wicked roots in the hot sun:

Weeds are lazy and lucky

The things that leaders want, such as loyalty, performance and congruence with the mission, are things that must be nurtured, cared for and maintained. We can seek to hire people with these qualities, but maintaining desired behavior and attitudes is a constant process of growth. Low morale and sloppy work are insidious and barely noticeable but take root in any crevice they find.

Weeds are selfish

Annoying burrs don’t like to work for a living. They take their nutrients from the good plants. The beautiful and helpful growth will be weakened by the weeds. Not only do the weeds need to be stopped, killed, or removed, but the healthy plants must be protected. Pulling weeds near roses can damage the rose bush unless it happens early and carefully.

When leaders finally address problem policies or employees, the ripple effect of the damage caused inevitably goes beyond the immediate solution. But a temporary rage against the annoyance solves nothing. Neither does a brief nuclear attack on the immediate problem. Cultivation and care is the key.

What are the weeds in your agency?

To apply the lessons of weed control the first quest is to find out what the weeds are and where they are hiding. Promoting healthy growth – which is the key to avoiding weeds and needs to happen at every rung of the organizational ladder – involves constant quality control, monitoring of morale and internal relational health, intentional assessment of policy compliance and ongoing emphasis on mission-oriented ethical conduct. When these values are congruent throughout the organization, then keeping the weeds out becomes everyone’s responsibility.

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