3 ways to be a listening leader

Our officers desire to serve with pride. Leaders must be intentional about keeping that desire alive


This article originally appeared in the April 2021 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit 3 ways leaders can listen | LEO suicide | 'Crisis Cops' on HBO, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

A persistent charge against police administrators by line officers is that desk-bound suits have forgotten what it is like out in the real world. Most of those wearing sparklies on their epaulets are much more in touch than their accusers might assume. Nevertheless, a good leader will, from time to time, reflect on what it is like in the patrol officers’ shoes. Even in small departments with working chiefs, the view from the top is different.

Police1 recently compiled results of a survey of 4,000 officers to understand how cops want law enforcement to evolve. Leaders can learn from what officers are saying as reflected in such surveys in order to be very intentional in filtering out the usual malcontents complaining and hearing core issues that can be addressed.

[Click here to listen to an on-demand webinar that reviews the survey's key findings.] 

Perhaps the most encouraging data comes from the idealism that attracted most officers to policing and has kept them there. The desire to serve is listed as the top reason for police officers choosing law enforcement as a career for 75% of respondents, along with other admirable aspirations. Only 4% fell into law enforcement because it was the only job available to them. This points to a self-selection of individuals with a high service orientation. The ability to be of service is also listed as the most satisfying aspect of policing.

Results from Police1's "What cops want in 2021" survey show the majority of officers entered law enforcement to serve their community.
Results from Police1's "What cops want in 2021" survey show the majority of officers entered law enforcement to serve their community.

Not only does this contradict the narrative of some critics that we are attracting the wrong kind of people into the profession, but it provides leaders with a reminder of what is at the heart of their officers’ daily work. Keeping that alive and in focus must be a primary goal of leaders. Here are three ways to accomplish that:

1. Be an intentional encourager

Leaders can be sure to pass on accolades and compliments whenever they hear them. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey showed that 79% of officers had been thanked for their service in the month preceding the survey while 67% had been verbally abused. When one intuitively includes the absence of appreciation and all of the grumbling and negative body language that won’t fit into the outright abuse category, the ratio of appreciation to ingratitude can become cumulatively harmful to morale. We all know that the brain gives more attention to negatives and threats because that focus has greater survival value. That means that positive inputs must outweigh the negative by multiples.

When some concerned citizen asks what they can do for your officers, have a concrete idea for them:

  • Ask them to write a letter to the local newspaper or TV station in support of the department.
  • Ask them to send a card signed by kids to put on the bulletin board.
  • Let them know of any anti-police legislation coming up and ask them to email their representatives and send a copy to you to share.
  • Provide information about how to donate to a police relief or scholarship fund.

Our concern about staying neutral and not accepting gifts must be balanced with giving civilians the opportunity to serve their public servants.

Police1's survey results show that the most harmful ingredient in low morale is the public’s misperception of the police.
Police1's survey results show that the most harmful ingredient in low morale is the public’s misperception of the police.

2. Be a public advocate

Police1's survey indicates that the most harmful ingredient in low morale is the public’s misperception of the police.

With false and misleading narratives abounding in the media and from the mouths of politicians, the real substance of improvements in policing is lost and replaced with punitive rhetoric:

  • Police leaders should intelligently point to statistical realities in public and private discussions about reform proposals.
  • Police leaders should brag about their agency constantly.
  • Police leaders should speak out against unwise legislative proposals with the goal of educating the public about these measures.
  • Police leaders should pursue partnerships with citizen groups for the advancement of quality law enforcement.

3. Offer substantive training

Officers already possess the skills that many misinformed critics are clamoring for inclusion in police training. But police officers, 80% of which have post-secondary education under their belts, are open to more training in conflict resolution, crisis communication, and weaponless arrest and control skills.

Police leaders should do their best to reject some of the unscientific and politically driven “training” and make an honest assessment of their officers’ training needs. Police leaders must move beyond checking boxes on recurrent training in order to move toward training that is need-based and outcome-oriented.

Our officers desire to serve with pride. Police leaders must be intentional about keeping that desire alive.


Download expert analysis of Police1's state of the industry survey

Download expert analysis of Police1's state of the industry survey

To provide officers a voice in setting the future of policing, Police1 conducted our first State of the Industry survey to understand how the law enforcement profession wants to evolve.


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