How front-line supervisors impact police officer retention

The working relationships the supervisor cultivates (or doesn’t) plays a large role in whether people stay or leave their positions


By Jennifer Kirkland, ENP, CPE, RPL

“People leave their bosses, not their jobs,” is a commonly held management tenet. While the validity of that particular statement is up for debate, the principle behind it is not. The impact a supervisor has on those being led cannot be underestimated. It is the direct supervisor who has the most control over the everyday culture, work environment and conditions for his or her employees, and it’s an awesome responsibility.

Not surprisingly, it’s the working relationships the supervisor cultivates (or doesn’t) with each member of the team that plays a large role in regard to whether people stay or leave their positions. In an article about employee disengagement, Forbes magazine states, “The central relationship between manager and employee plays a critical role.”

It is the direct supervisor who has the most control over the everyday culture, work environment and conditions for his or her employees. (Photo/FBI.gov)
It is the direct supervisor who has the most control over the everyday culture, work environment and conditions for his or her employees. (Photo/FBI.gov)

A relationship is a two-way street, and both the employee and the supervisor are responsible for cultivating a positive working relationship. However, the responsibility for opening the door and being intentional about creating that relationship lies with the supervisor. It’s the supervisor’s job to lead that relationship ­– to open the door, set the stage, allow for open communication and guide the way.

Here are four ways supervisors can LEAD to increase employee engagement and retention.

Learn: Build real relationships with your team members

Most leaders know they are supposed to “manage by walking around.” This is useful for getting out with your team, but it’s the tidbits you glean and retain while you’re out there that matter.

Genuine curiosity and interest in people’s lives goes a long way toward building a relationship with each person you supervise. Learning as much as you can about your people pays priceless dividends.

When the supervisor remembers something they’ve been told, and asks about it –“Hey, how was your son’s recital?” – trust is built and relationships are strengthened. Once that has been established, you can build upon it and expand the topics to include work-related issues and challenges. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” When you demonstrate that you care about your people as people, then they are willing to walk the path with you in work matters as well.

Eat with your team: Create your culture

Many people believe that culture cannot be created; that it’s an organic thing that “grows,” regardless of management’s intentions. This is not the case. The Society for Human Resource Management believes that “company leaders play an instrumental role in shaping and sustaining organizational culture” and that “a strong culture is a common denominator among the most admired companies.”

Leaders must define the culture they want to see, design processes to promote that culture, clearly explain the culture and its goals, and then model the behavior that results in the specified culture.

For example, if respect is one of the hallmarks desired in your culture, then you must model respect in every interaction. “Do as I say, not as I do,” does not work in leadership; your people must see you behaving in the way you wish them to behave.

Eating with your people accomplishes two things: (1) It allows you to learn; and (2) it allows you to witness your culture in action and model the culture you wish to build. Eating with your team does not have to include a formal meal: surprise your team with snacks and hang with them while you all enjoy them!

Appreciate: Create growth opportunities for your people

The word “appreciate” means “to add value to.” The Harvard Business Review agrees that the relationship between supervisor and employee is critical, but it also states that people leave jobs because of the nature of the job. Stated simply: people get bored.

Add value to your people by creating professional growth opportunities for them. If you can’t create new positions in your agency, help them create career paths from within. Invest in training opportunities for your profession, obviously, but also training opportunities that interest them. Training opportunities that are employee-driven create value both for the employee and the agency. When employees know their supervisor is committed to supporting their goals and growth – even when they aren’t work-related – they become more loyal to the supervisor (and the agency).

Decisions: Involve your team

The more control employees can have over their environment and work processes, the happier they are. There are many decisions you can have your team help with, or delegate to them entirely. Depending on how you design your culture, you could even have the vast majority of decisions affecting your employees’ day-to-day life either made by your team or weighed in on by your team. Another term for this concept is “autonomy.”

According to HR Dive, “Employees who have control over how they do their work and the pace they set are likely to feel more confident in their jobs and like they are making a difference for the company. In turn, they are more satisfied overall.” Many people cite autonomy as a leading factor in deciding whether to leave a position or stay. Take a look at the decisions you make every day, and either involve your team in them or delegate them entirely. Rather than losing control, you gain respect.

Employee engagement and retention are challenges faced by every agency in public safety. The LEAD principles are simple, and, when they are put into practice by individuals, these principles benefit the team, the organization and the profession.

About the author

Jennifer Kirkland is a senior consultant with Fitch & Associates with extensive experience in 911 leadership, customer service, and strategic planning. She serves as faculty and on-site facilitator for the ASM/CCM programs. She also serves as the 911 Operations Administrator for Vail Public Safety Communications Center, after rising through the ranks as dispatcher, trainer, supervisor and interim director. She can be reached at jkirkland@fitchassoc.com.

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