Why Drucker’s ‘MBO’ has failed in police management (and how to fix it)

MBO has failed in police organizations due to a focus on performance measure as the outcomes of the process, ignoring the fact that the inputs are the most valuable piece of the MBO puzzle

In the mid-1950s, management guru Peter Drucker wrote The Practice of Management. With that book Drucker first popularized the concepts that are known as ‘Management By Objectives” or MBO.

The basic managerial elements of MBO involve participative goal setting between employees and management, followed by an evaluation of performance as measured against those previously established goals. 

As the theory goes, when employees have been involved with goal setting – and choosing the course of action to be followed to reach those goals – they are more likely to fulfill their responsibilities.

Looks good on paper

The basic theories behind MBO have been debated for decades, as have the stated advantages of MBO as a managerial tool:

  1. Motivation: Involving employees in the whole process of goal setting and increasing employee empowerment. This increases employee job satisfaction and commitment.
  2. Communication and coordination: Frequent reviews and interactions between superiors and subordinates can help to maintain harmonious relationships within the organization and also to solve many problems.
  3. Goals: Set goals that are clearly defined, measurable, and achievable. 
  4. Commitment: Subordinates tend to have a higher commitment to objectives they set for themselves than those imposed on them by another person.
  5. Connection: Managers can ensure that the objectives of the subordinates are linked to the organization's objectives.

Since its inception, MBO has been used by hundreds of organizations – including many in law enforcement – to help achieve organizational goals. The legacy of MBO has been the topic of hundreds of articles, books and seminars by those who tout the theory as the panacea to nearly every performance concern. 

While there is little doubt that MBO can be used effectively, we also know that the law enforcement profession has special concerns in terms of effectively evaluating individual performance.

Unfortunately, our expectation that MBO could serve as our primary vehicle for encouraging and evaluating individual performance is faulty due to a miscomprehension of the managerial role of MBO. 

Where MBO in LE falls short

The concern with the use of MBO in law enforcement is not based on the soundness of the theory, but rather on the application of the process. The primary reason that MBO has not worked work well within law enforcement agencies is that we focus almost exclusively on performance measures as the outcomes of the process and ignore the fact that the inputs are the most valuable piece of the MBO puzzle. 

We use MBO as a shortcut for evaluating performance without a full understanding of the impact that this use of the MBO process can have on outcomes, including individual performance. 

Here are the four main problems with MBO in law enforcement, and some ways to avoid them.

  1. The collaborative process of MBO is often circumvented by the organizational command structure. MBO is most effective when used solely between officers and sergeants to set performance goals. When these goals are then reviewed and revised by lieutenants — and in turn, are then reviewed and revised by captains — the process becomes less about collaboration and more about command. To avoid this, remember that MBO is only effective as a motivational tool if there is a true collaboration in the goal-setting process. Captains and Lieutenants set division and unit goals, but the employee’s immediate supervisor must be entrusted with the collaborative portion of individual goal setting.
  2. Our use of MBO does not take into account the importance of valance — the intrinsic attractiveness — in the motivation of employees. Valence is the value that an employee places on a reward in exchange for completing a task. MBO assumes that valance is present due to the empowerment given during the goal-setting process, but somehow this key component is often missing. To restore valence, make sure that the focus of the process remains on the employee and his or her input towards goal setting. The satisfaction that comes from personal empowerment is a powerful motivational tool and adds critical value to the process from the employee’s perspective.
  3. The linkage between organizational and individual goals is backward if present at all. When using MBO, it is critical that the goal-setting process flows from the organizational level to the unit level, to the individual level. This is necessary in order to link individual goals and performance with the bigger picture of organizational objectives. Also, remember that we can’t ensure that the desired linkage is present if we don’t communicate our organizational goals.
  4. MBO is used as a replacement for effective leadership practices or, worse yet, as the only motivational tool employed to influence performance. In essence, we use MBO in name only. We assign objectives and we evaluate performance based on a comparison to those objectives. We fail to offer communication, guidance, or support. Ultimately, when the objectives are not met, we label the outcome as a “performance issue.” To use MBO effectively, police leaders must remember that Peter Drucker developed the concept as a managerial tool for supervisors, not as a method for evaluating employees’ performance.

Making MBO work in LE

The original goal of MBO was to focus the attention of the manager on organizational goals and objectives, which Drucker called the “original purpose.”

By focusing on the original purpose and using the collaborative process for goal setting, MBO can also empower and motivate employees toward goal achievement.

Empowered, satisfied, and motivated law enforcement employees are more likely to perform at a higher level and produce desired outputs.

But it is the focus on the inputs of the MBO process (collaboration, communication, goals and objectives, organizational outcomes) that can make it effective, not the focus on the performance outcomes. 

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