4 ways police leaders can motivate personnel

How can leaders motivate their officers to perform at optimal levels?

By Shaun Ward, D. Mgt
P1 Contributor

Today’s law enforcement community deals daily with incidents that negatively impact police-community relationships. As department leaders focus on improving relationships with the citizens they serve, they must also maintain the morale of those men and women wearing the uniform.

I recently published a study that focused on identifying how first-line supervisors motivate their subordinates. Ten supervisors participated, ranging from 8–25 years’ of experience supervising personnel, with an average of 13 subordinates. Each supervisor participated in a one-on-one interview, where they answered 11 questions about their daily interactions with personnel.

Supervising officers should not ask a subordinate to do a task, assignment, or duty that the supervisor would not be willing to do her or himself. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Supervising officers should not ask a subordinate to do a task, assignment, or duty that the supervisor would not be willing to do her or himself. (Photo/PoliceOne)

While responses varied, certain themes emerged. Each supervisor expressed commitment to keeping his or her subordinates motivated in order to effectively deal with stressors of the job, both internally and externally. Based on the information shared by the survey participants, here are four ways law enforcement supervisors can help motivate employees.

1. research finding: Lead by Example

Supervising officers should not ask a subordinate to do a task, assignment, or duty that the supervisor would not be willing to do her or himself. This sets a standard of expectation to the subordinate officer. The supervising officer then becomes a person others want to follow. Supervising officers strongly believed that forcing a subordinate officer to do something the supervising officer would not do erodes trust, with trust being one of the most critical elements of productive leadership.

Police Leader Tip: Rather than managing your officers’ call for service responses, answer some calls with them. Set high standards and adhere to them. If you talk it, walk it.

2. research finding: Treat Officers as People First

Effective supervisors have a sense of empathy for the stress of the profession and its impact on their subordinates’ job performance and motivation. Empathy is far removed from sympathy – it denotes the ability to understand and share the feelings or experience. Furthermore, it denotes support with compassion.

Police Leader Tip: Encourage a balanced work-life structure among your officers by encouraging and supporting employee engagement activities outside of the job. Be flexible with days off requests, offer additional down time at work, and create team engagement activities with their peers. Take interest in and help with the subordinate’s personal problems, aspirations, successes and losses.

3. research finding: Be Self-Aware

A self-aware supervisor recognizes that his or her leadership approach may not work for every subordinate.

Police Leader Tip: Attend additional supervisory professional development training to consistently remind yourself that as a supervisor, you have to adapt to the learning styles of each officer, rather than each officer adapt to your leadership style.

4. research finding: Provide the right reward system

It is important for supervisors to focus on small successes as much as bigger ones.

Police Leader Tip: Often officers are only recognized through an officer of the month program or at a yearly awards ceremony. A simple recognition at roll call for a call for service, compensating an officer for her/his meal from time to time, allowing the officer to come to work later or even leave earlier are ways to celebrate the small successes.


When law enforcement leaders motivate their subordinates, they improve the quality of services in their communities. Understanding and defining motivation as it relates to work performance in the context of law enforcement officers helps increase the level of productivity in community policing initiatives, arrests of criminal offenders and criminal summons among officers, as well as their loyalty to the organization.

About the Author
Shaun Ward, D. Mgt., is a law enforcement professional with over 15 years of strategic and leadership experience who received his Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership degree. Dr. Ward has contributed extensively as a program manager of community policing initiatives and professional development. He is dedicated to researching occupational health and safety, relational process, and employee well-being to produce evidence-based best practices that are meaningful to scholars, practitioners and communities at large. Connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/shaunlward.

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