The art of not managing

Focus on ownership and reasonableness to cultivate competence and pride in your officers


There are two distinctly different philosophies a leader can adopt in regard to the way a team performs without that leader’s direct supervision:

1. "They are lost without me"

The first approach is when a leader strives to accentuate their own importance by making their team unable to function unless the leader is present to lead them. To some people, this can show how seemingly important, intelligent and vital to success the leader is because without a leader at the scene directing the team the situation cannot be adequately resolved and the mission cannot be accomplished.

It takes practice to lead while appearing not to be doing so, but the returns you will gain are absolutely worth the effort.
It takes practice to lead while appearing not to be doing so, but the returns you will gain are absolutely worth the effort. (Police1)

This can help a leader feel important; the team can’t function well without them therefore their presence is a prerequisite for the team’s success. This kind of leader is inexplicably proud to say, “They are lost without me” and “If I don’t show up, they won’t know what to do.”

A leader who chooses this philosophy can implement it quite easily by second-guessing and micromanaging officers at every opportunity. Whenever an officer does something without direct supervision, the leader can simply think of an alternate solution and ask why the officer didn’t handle the situation that way instead.

It doesn’t matter if the leader’s alternative is better than the officer’s solution – what’s important is the leader shows they can instantly think of a “better” solution, to reinforce their position at the head of the team. It helps to phrase questions as negatively as possible, by asking things like, “Why didn’t you do this or that?” as opposed to, “Nice job. How did you figure out that was the way to handle it?”

The leader can ignore good performances and instead constantly point out imperfections in the team’s actions under the guise of “training” or “debriefing.” When the leader is present at a scene to supervise, they should make sure to give explicit orders and directions on every single aspect of whatever is going on, leaving no room for independent thought or individual initiative. Leaders who follow these guidelines should be able to successfully cripple any squad in no time at all. If that’s your goal, have at it.

2. ‘My officers can handle anything’      

The second (and far more reasonable) way of looking at this issue is to believe that one of your goals as a leader is to train your people so they can function without you. You can use every situation as an opportunity to train your people, whether it involves a single officer or your whole squad.

The goal of this training is not just to produce a group of officers who can function well without supervision. The continuing goal of any good supervisor is also to improve their officers’ job satisfaction and the way they feel about themselves, which will automatically improve their work product and the quality of services they render to your town or city. If you want to be the kind of leader who is able to proudly say, “My officers can handle anything whether I’m there or not,” then you will want to remember these two terms: ownership and objective reasonableness.

Exercising ownership

You can give your officers effective ownership of their activities by allowing them, as often as is practical, to make their own decisions in the situations they are called upon to handle. Whenever they handle a situation on their own, they are able to feel pride in its successful resolution to a far greater degree than if their role was to simply follow the orders given by a supervisor.

Also, if the situation is not resolved satisfactorily, the officer is far more likely to learn from a mistake to a much greater degree than if the officer was simply following your explicit orders. If the officer is not invested in the solution, they aren’t likely to care one way or the other.

Of course, in some situations, it is not only appropriate but expected that a supervisor takes charge and decides how a scene or an investigation should be handled. But how often do we see a supervisor start giving orders in a situation that could easily be handled by a supervisor of lesser rank or by an officer?

Is the supervisor building self-confidence or practical skills in the officer by telling them what to do and how to do it? Is the officer going to leave that scene with a feeling of pride in a job well done or are they going to leave that scene feeling like they did nothing special and could have been replaced by anyone capable of following orders?

Even in smaller departments where the sergeant or lieutenant regularly shows up on calls for backup, there is nothing that says they can’t be there for support but still allow the officer to handle the situation.

When an officer is permitted to autonomously make decisions and handle a call for service or an investigation, the officer will automatically feel a greater sense of pride and job satisfaction. Now they own that call or investigation and the results are directly tied to their efforts and skill. Officers who feel empowered and take pride in themselves and in their work will always perform better than officers who do not.

As a supervisor, your basic mission is to manage the resources under your responsibility to provide the best possible police services to your town, city, county, or state. When you are able to empower your officers and give them a sense of pride in the work they do, you are improving the level of police services your agency provides.

Weighing the "what if"

“What happens if they make a mistake?” This question is often cited as the reason some supervisors choose not to let their officers make their own decisions. That question is often accompanied by the sentiment that one of the supervisor’s job is to prevent such mistakes. This certainly makes sense, to a certain extent.

If an officer is about to do something that will result in serious negative consequences, it is the supervisor’s job to step in. But if it is a mistake the officer will be able to fix later with some additional work, then let them make the mistake. An officer will learn more by doing something wrong and having to go back and do it properly than they will ever learn by having a supervisor standing over their shoulder and telling them what to do all the time. And if you are always there to tell an officer what to do and how to do it, are they going to be more or less likely to make a mistake when you are not there to guide their actions?

When an officer makes their own decisions regarding an investigation or a call for service, the officer can truly feel pride in their work when the situation is resolved or the investigation completed. If that exact same call for service or investigation came up and a supervisor came to the scene, told the officer what to do, and how to do it, there would be none of the same pride or job satisfaction. Aside from brand-new academy graduates going through their field training, an officer is not going to learn anything by having someone tell him where to go, what to do, and how to do it.

“What if they didn’t technically make a mistake, but there was a better way to do it? Isn’t it part of my job to point out ways my people can do their job better?” I have heard this particular question before, and I can understand why people might see things that way. Most missions can be accomplished in more than one way, and some of those ways often take less time and/or require less effort than others. If an officer decides to use a method that the supervisor feels is less than optimal, why shouldn’t the supervisor tell that officer about a “better” alternative?         

Just like the officer who is permitted to make mistakes learns more than one who is simply told what to do, so too does the officer who is permitted to independently choose a course of action rather than simply being told the “best” way to proceed. An officer who decides on a course of action and is later told there was a “better” way is not going to feel the same pride and is not going to learn as much from the experience as one who receives positive reinforcement for coming up with a viable solution unaided.

Relying on objective reasonableness

There exists a standard that you as a supervisor can apply to the situations your officers handle on their own – it’s a standard that you are no doubt familiar with already, though probably not in the manner you’re going to use it.

We are all familiar with Graham v. Connor, which holds that all claims that law enforcement officials used excessive force in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other seizure of a free citizen are properly analyzed under the Fourth Amendment's "objective reasonableness" standard, rather than under a substantive due process standard.

And from that case, we also know that the Fourth Amendment "reasonableness" standard is whether the actions of the officer were "objectively reasonable" in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation. The "reasonableness" of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often required to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.

Why not use the same standard when dealing with your officers’ actions on an everyday basis? To do this, the standard the officer should be held to is one in which they must act in a reasonable manner at all times, given the facts and circumstances as they perceive them at the time, whether the call they respond to is a routine call for service or a major incident involving the use of deadly force. Officers can’t reasonably be expected to select the course of action that you and other supervisors will later decide was the “best” way to proceed, but they can be expected to select a reasonable course of action at all times.

Think about some of the situations we deal with daily and then think of how the average person off the street would respond. Every time an officer handles what to us is a fairly routine situation (but what to a civilian would be a heart-pounding, stress-filled, perhaps even terrifying ordeal) in a reasonable manner, they are doing a fine job, worthy of notice and deserving of praise. And each time they handle a similar situation, they are learning a little bit more about what works and what doesn’t.

The way I always explain this to my officers and detectives is that they don’t have to handle a scene or an investigation the way I would handle it; they simply have to handle it in a reasonable manner. Allowing an officer to decide how to handle a situation or investigation without your interference is simply another form of positive reinforcement. Every time you do it, you are impressing upon the officer that you believe they can make the right decisions and accomplish the mission.

When there is a major incident and you take charge as soon as you arrive at the scene, your officers will understand that is your job and there won’t be any problems. On those rare occasions when you see that one of your people has handled or is handling a situation or investigation in an unreasonable manner and you have to step in to correct them, there won’t be any problems there either.

Why not? Because just like a person who regularly receives positive feedback doesn’t mind getting corrected on occasion, neither will a person who regularly receives nonverbal feedback in the form of undisturbed autonomy. They will understand when you are occasionally required to step in and actively supervise them.

Leading efficiently and effectively

To some, the art of management by not managing could be taken as an excuse to be uninvolved or even lazy. It is true that a lazy supervisor could ignore a squad’s daily activities and later claim they were simply letting them handle things on their own in order to empower or train them. However, I see the proper use of this technique as a highly efficient method.

By taking this path, you not only motivate your officers/detectives by continually showing confidence in their skills and judgment, but you train them to think quickly, make decisions, and respond to emergencies with decisiveness and poise because they are used to and comfortable doing so. A supervisor using this technique must learn to supervise without appearing to do so.

You have to keep your distance so officers feel they can proceed on their own, while you are still close enough to monitor what’s going on (when appropriate, certainly not a requirement for most routine calls) and step in if the situation demands it. Supervisors must balance the desire to let their officers/detectives make their own decision with the responsibility they have to public safety. Mistakes should be allowed to happen, but not serious mistakes with serious consequences. It’s a fine line, and it takes skill and dedication to walk it consistently.

The key point to remember is that after you give your officers the freedom to handle a case or a scene in their own way, you must apply the objective reasonableness standard when you assess how they did instead of asking yourself if that’s how you would have done it or if they handled it the “best” way.

By getting your squad to take ownership of their calls for service and investigations, and by giving them enough space to determine for themselves what is the best (in their opinion) way to proceed, you are actually supervising much more effectively than if you chose to micromanage your squad and second-guess every decision they made.

It takes practice to lead while appearing not to be doing so, and it takes an open mind and commitment to your troops to review everything they do through the lens of objective reasonableness. But the returns you will gain – in the form of more highly motivated, empowered officers who are both comfortable and skilled in making rapid and intelligent decisions at routine calls and emergencies alike – are absolutely worth the effort.

Good luck and be safe!

NEXT: 12 traits of effective police leaders

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