How police leaders can manage the generation divide

The Gen Ys and millennials of today will be the administrators of tomorrow – we must give them the tools and knowledge to excel


Cop shops, like any other organization, have four generations of workers on the job today:

  • Baby boomers;
  • Generation X;
  • Generation Y;
  • Millennials.

Ten-thousand “boomers” retire each day nationwide. Naturally, that void is being filled by Generation Y and millennials.

A seemingly negative characteristic of our younger officers is the need for instant gratification. That can also be a good thing. (Photo/Warren Wilson)
A seemingly negative characteristic of our younger officers is the need for instant gratification. That can also be a good thing. (Photo/Warren Wilson)

While many supervisors spend a lot of time expressing frustration regarding how to manage younger generations, true leaders know that departments need to adjust to the changing workforce. With that in mind, let’s look at some key ways leaders can evolve both mindset and operations to meet the needs of younger officers.

Explain the mission

While Generation X and their elders tend to do what is asked of them with little or no resistance, Generation Y and millennials tend to question orders and policies. Keep in mind, they don’t necessarily mean any disrespect. More than any other age-oriented demographic, these folks need to understand the reasoning behind what we do. They seek meaning to their work. Taking a little extra time to explain the mission is imperative to successfully managing millennials.

Be here now

A seemingly negative characteristic of our younger officers is the need for instant gratification. That can also be a good thing. People who strive for rewards also strive for success and respond to positive reinforcement when applied promptly. There is a principle referenced in Senn-Delaney’s excellent book, “Leadership, Teambuilding and Culture Change” called, “Be here now.” Providing positive, timely feedback after good performance is one way to nurture that characteristic into a quality.

In another’s shoes

An undeniably positive quality that law enforcement leadership should appreciate from our youth is their emphasis on empathy. For contrast, Generation X cops, like myself, have historically avoided medical training, largely from a fear of failure and even more so, the tragic “not my job” complex. That’s less true of the younger crew. They embrace this important skill and have brought it to the forefront of police work, as it should be. Cops and citizens are increasingly being saved by $30 tourniquets and people willing to train with and use them. Looking around my department, I would estimate that 10 percent of our officers carry a tourniquet on their belt and another 30 percent have one in their vehicle. The vast majority of those folks are of a more recent birth. That practice will soon be the norm largely as our younger cops mature into police leaders.

Along those same lines, our kids have grown up with technology and mastered key tech skills by grade school. Many cases have been successfully prosecuted due to digital confessions made by unwitting suspects on their own social media pages. Cops who don’t know how to use this critical technology or even have an account on social media platforms are at a disadvantage. Twentieth-century cops may have something to learn in this area of police investigations.

If you’re green you’re growing

The ability to collaborate is probably the most important quality brought by our new hires. That annoying kid with their nose in their phone is actually learning about conflict, communication and the sharing of ideas. Allowing our younger officers to lead us into the modern age of communication may be difficult but it is worthwhile. Maybe not every idea brought up by a rookie is golden, but we must be open to that input. The brilliant businessman, Ray Kroc, understood all levels of employees had value right down to the kid on his or her first day on the job. His success speaks for itself.

While molding our management style to accommodate younger generations, we must not neglect our veteran officers. Educating and nurturing them is just as important to organizational success. Not only must we not neglect their day-to-day contributions, we must help them become mentors for our younger officers. Seasoned officers should be encouraged and incentivized to share their experience with the new kids as both will get value from those relationships. 

Leaders take note

What does all this mean for cop bosses? It means we need to work harder. If we expect excellence from our people, we must produce excellence ourselves. Law enforcement leadership must adapt and evolve with our applicant pool. Expecting people born in 1997 to be characteristically identical to those born in 1977 or even 1987 is foolhardy.

This is where managers and leaders differ. Managers just expect results. Leaders are prepared to do the work and reap the rewards down range. The Gen Ys and millennials of today will be the administrators of tomorrow. We must give them the tools and knowledge to excel. These new officers will face their own personnel challenges with Generation Z and whoever comes after that. How we prepare them today will determine the quality of police leadership tomorrow.

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