Why your marginal officer is like my 3-year-old boy (and what to do about it)

If you’re in a leadership position of any kind at your agency, you know there isn’t much difference in the way that a three-year-old and a marginal employee behave

By Brian Cain, Police1 Member

There isn’t a police agency on Earth that doesn’t have an employee that teeters on the edge of doing just enough to get by. They come in to work looking acceptable, they find out what is expected of them that day, and then they are standing at the time clock come quitting time. 

They often complain about the way the department runs, but you will never catch them seeking a promotion to try to change things. They get their shift assignment and only care about what happens in their personal space for the next few hours. They know just how far to push before they get in trouble.

That sounds exactly like my three-year-old boy.

Your Marginal Officer is Like My Three-Year-Old Boy
My youngest son constantly reminds me of a marginal employee. He constantly has to be reminded to do anything — everything. He only does what we ask him to when we’ve asked for the fourth time. He can’t be relied upon to pick out acceptable clothing. He doesn't like the way mommy and I do things. 

He pushes our buttons until we’re ready to snap... and then he gives us hugs and kisses.

That sounds familiar doesn’t it? If you’re in a leadership position of any kind at your agency, you know there isn’t much difference in the way that a three-year-old and a marginal employee behave.

Both want to do the minimum amount of work they can get away with. They just want to play the rest of the time. Both have to be told when to improve performance. Both have to be told what to do in a very detailed manner. Both are prone to temper tantrums when they don’t get what they want or don’t understand why something has changed.

Both can be extremely frustrating.

My wife and I have a 10-year old, so we’re confident the three-year-old will grow out of this stage. Like him, your marginal employee can be made to change — can find the will to change – through deep examination of and capitalization on their motivation.

They can also — on occasion — be supervised and managed into a productive employee.

Using the Situational Leadership Model
According to the highly acclaimed “Situational Leadership Model” there are four levels in the employee development process. They are:

1.    Directive (high-moderate supervision with low-moderate recognition): The employee is given direction from a supervisor. There is no dialogue and the employee must demonstrate competence before leaving this level.
2.    Supportive (high-moderate supervision with low-moderate recognition): The supervisor allows some initiative while monitoring consistency with which the employee performs.
3.    Coaching (moderate-low supervision with moderate-high recognition): Instead of 1 way communication, dialogue is now sought with the employee. The employee only gets to this stage when they have demonstrated consistent performance.
4.    Delegation (low supervision with low recognition): The employee is now self-achieving and requires little direct supervision. He/she is totally self-reliant.

I’ve seen — and implemented — this model many times in my years as a supervisor. But I have often found it to lack a crucial ingredient to move an employee from marginal to exemplary. It is missing one ingredient necessary for someone who lacks the ability to change their behavior.

I believe that missing ingredient is motivation.

Motivation is one of those grossly misunderstood things. I have long heard supervisors of old talk about “motivating the troops.” I subscribe to the belief that motivation is not something that can come from the outside. Motivation comes from within — it is purely internal. I cannot instill motivation. I can only teach and coach someone to find motivation. 

Real-World Example
I struggled for nearly a year with a particularly difficult marginal employee. I went through the entire disciplinary spectrum with him. I never felt comfortable moving from Supportive to Coaching. He lacked motivation.

I took a chance, sat him down and taught him Dr. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I found a particular area of Law Enforcement that he was interested in — K-9s — and walked him through how the 7 habits would lead to his being a better patrol officer, and how that would eventually lead to achieving his dream of being a dog handler. He was sold!

I kept him at the Directive-Supportive level of the development process until he was able to prove to me that he could consistently meet my demands to productivity and quality of work. He was soon in the Delegation level and well on his way to being a handler. 

Unfortunately, he was seriously injured off duty and had to leave law enforcement. He never achieved his goal of handing dogs, but had tragedy not struck, he could have made it. 

You can turn around the performance of your marginal employee. I can’t say this works every time. There are just some people who cannot or will not change. They will never be a racehorse — they will always be a donkey. But for those who you think can change, I would suggest starting with the above development process. 

While you are going through the process, learn what makes that employee tick. 

Find out what they want to be when they grow up. When you couple their motivation with time-tested supervision techniques, everyone gets better in the end.

In case you were wondering, this works on my three-year-old son, too.

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