Today’s performance notice is tomorrow’s leadership lesson
“Catch ‘em doing something right” is an important mindset to have to make sure your personnel know you see the quality work they are doing
This article originally appeared in the August 2023 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, see LE staffing crisis report; 4 benefits to putting praise in writing and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
Good leaders can make a lasting impression on their personnel and indeed, their agency, by ensuring that good work is recognized in writing.
Most true leaders know it is important to make sure improper behavior is corrected before it becomes a problem for the agency. More importantly, leadership needs to be on the lookout for good behavior. “Catch ‘em doing something right” is an important mindset to have to make sure personnel know you see the quality work they are doing and that you appreciate the effort they are putting forth. A message delivered through a simple text, hand-written note, or phone call can go a long way to creating positive relationships with people and reinforcing positive work behaviors to a point where they become work habits.
A phone call, text, or “shout out” in the briefing at the start of the day are great ways to highlight an employee’s exceptional work. And this recognition doesn’t have to come from their direct supervisors. Seeing a chief, a deputy chief, a captain, or any other officer, regardless of rank or assignment, reaching out and acknowledging the efforts and accomplishments of others has a significant impact on the employee, the employee’s unit and the agency itself. After all, who doesn’t like to be praised for their work? But to really have an impact, make sure you put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and get it in writing!
One agency’s experience
At one point in my agency, the chief made the executive decision that all commendations and/or reprimands had to come directly from him. True, the chief needs to be fully aware of the good and not-so-good actions of their officers. But to wrest the authority to praise or admonish officers from the very supervisors who are in the greatest position to observe these actions does not make sense.
The rationale provided was that recommendations for commendation or reprimand would be forwarded to the chief’s office, and he would decide the merits and issue the appropriate notice accordingly. The problem was that he very rarely did. Input from sergeants and lieutenants fell on deaf ears and, ultimately, the rank and file felt that the agency administration no longer cared.
After the chief retired, the new chief was asked to reinstate the authority of the frontline and mid-level supervisors to issue commendations or counseling to the officers under their command. Fortunately, the chief supported this idea and approved the new policy. To date, it has been well-received throughout the agency by officers and supervisors.
Four benefits to putting praise in writing
There are distinct benefits to putting your appreciation in writing.
- It is a great tool to empower supervisors to have or maintain an appropriate level of focus on the day-to-day, routine (or maybe not-so-routine) actions each day. Going through the shift with a mindset of “What noteworthy things did my officers do today?” keeps supervisors looking at their officers from the perspective of the agency’s mission and the citizens’ expectations. Additionally, the supervisor’s job during evaluation time becomes a bit easier if there are a few, or more, written notices that can be used to document and support the supervisor’s observations of officer performance during the evaluation period.
- The officers themselves are greatly impacted by the written acknowledgment of their work. Often, when criticism of poor work performance is memorialized in writing, the officer may be at the beginning of the disciplinary process. This can create a general sense of discomfort at receiving anything in writing. Positive reinforcement delivered in writing shows that the “Atta-boys” carry just as much weight as the “Oh s**ts.”
- Let’s look at the segment of our workforce who are receiving these notices. They are the millennials and Gen-Zers that the “old guard” executive-level leadership loves to complain about. They are the ones we are courting to get in the door and who we need to retain in these days of recruitment and retention challenges all law enforcement agencies currently face. These are the ones who were the recipients of the participation trophies and 11th-place ribbons that we love to decry. Instead of complaining about the societal shift, adjust to meet the conditions in your theater of operation. A written commendation, a positive performance notice, or a handwritten thank you note can be that pat on the back they are familiar with, that shows them they are on the right track, and lets them know they are appreciated.
- These notices take on a certain level of permanence. When it comes in the form of a handwritten “thank you” card or it is on bonded letterhead, the impact becomes even stronger. They are tangible items that the officer can hold. There is a weight to them that makes a subconscious imprint on the employee. They DO NOT throw them away...ever. Sure, they tend to get filed in a drawer, a locker, or their patrol bag. However, these written notices have a way of reappearing months or years later when the officer has been given a new assignment or maybe even promoted. In the case of the latter, the newly-minted sergeant or lieutenant is reminded of the good work done that facilitated this opportunity and provides them your insight about the value of acknowledging good work. You get to pass your leadership along without saying a word, sometimes years after you have retired.
These notices go a long way to building resiliency within the officer and the agency in general. When good work is acknowledged, officers feel better about themselves and the people and the agency they work for. They know they are in a place where they are valued. It shows them their leaders are interested in them and encouraging them in their careers. It may be just enough to allow them to feel comfortable enough to come to you when they are dealing with issues they may not be comfortable talking about with others. Forge this type of connection with your personnel throughout the agency and the positive impact will be widespread.
It’s not just a note of appreciation for today’s job well done, it’s a leadership artifact that will reveal itself in the future.
Action items for law enforcement leaders
1. Implement a system for written recognition: Develop a structured approach to providing written commendations and reprimands. Ensure that this doesn’t just come from the top ranks but also from direct supervisors who are in a better position to observe the officers’ day-to-day actions. This could include a variety of forms such as a formal letter, an email, or a handwritten note.
2. Empower frontline and mid-level supervisors: Reconsider any policies that centralize authority for providing feedback only at the top levels. Allow frontline and mid-level supervisors to issue commendations or reprimands. This not only provides immediate feedback but also boosts the morale of the officers, knowing that their immediate supervisors are empowered to recognize their good work.
3. Adapt to the new generation of officers: Recognize the generational shift in the workforce and adapt your leadership style to meet their expectations and needs. This could mean acknowledging that younger officers might appreciate more frequent and written forms of feedback. Rather than resisting this shift, embrace it as a way to improve officer recruitment and retention.
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