Why collaborative leadership improves decision-making

Decisive action imposed on subordinates is needed in the chaotic tactical environment, but there are good reasons for engaging in collaborative decision-making when time allows


The military model of leadership still prevails in policing. Commands are made and policy is followed. Quick action can mean life or death and there is no time to call a committee meeting.

Or is there?

Coercion and independent decision-making

Engaging in dialogue with subordinates that provides constructive feedback when exploring a problem helps develop critical thinking skills that can transfer to decision-making in chaotic field environments. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Engaging in dialogue with subordinates that provides constructive feedback when exploring a problem helps develop critical thinking skills that can transfer to decision-making in chaotic field environments. (Photo/PoliceOne)

We call it a police force for a reason. The government monopoly on the use of force to get compliance with the law is an essential principle in a democracy. Law enforcement agents are given the tools, training and authority to engage in coercive behavior to ensure that citizens conduct themselves lawfully. Police training is centered on the psychological and physical means of gaining compliance and overcoming resistance. This is part of the police officer’s DNA and a primary characteristic of police leadership.

Decisive action imposed on subordinates is needed in the chaotic tactical environment that is the center of our training. But there are good reasons for engaging in collaborative decision-making when time allows.

What collaboration in policing looks like

In my research on community policing it became clear that police trainees were not taught skills necessary to effectively engage with citizens in problem solving. A core component of community policing is working with stakeholders to use the perspectives and knowledge they bring to the table to arrive at decisions that meet everyone’s goals. Because of the coercive culture of police work, these goals of community policing are not met as decisions are imposed rather than composed.

Leaders often continue in the coercive, rather than cooperative, mindset. The fear of giving away power and authority can restrict police leaders’ thinking. Control of situations is second nature, and taking time to hear other opinions can feel like a waste of time or worse – a tacit admission that the leader doesn’t know enough to make the call. Developing collaborative decision-making skills can be beneficial in several ways:

  1. Exploring options: Engaging subordinates and peers in exploring options and action steps helps them to be invested in the outcome. When colleagues are involved in making policy and procedure they are more likely to adhere to the resulting decisions.
  2. Listening skills: Modeling listening skills will enhance community policing efforts by developing in officers the attitudes and practices conducive to working with civilian stakeholders to solve problems. Learning to withhold judgement while others participate in discussion must be practiced.
  3. Decision-making: Engaging in dialogue with subordinates that provides constructive feedback when exploring a problem helps develop critical thinking skills that can transfer to decision-making in chaotic field environments. Police training is usually linear with specific processes to address specific challenges, but the reality of rapidly developing violent events is that non-linear and creative decisions are often called for.

Still in charge

Sharing decision-making does not diminish the final authority of the decision-maker if a good solution fails to arise from consultation with others. Not every decision is made in a huddle, but when a unilateral call is made by a leader who is willing to collaborate when possible, their authority and respect in a critical situation will shine even brighter.

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