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8 ways police leaders can improve morale

Morale is a thermometer for the health of your department


Individual officers can change behaviors and attitudes, but supervisors and administrators have much more control and are often able to influence at much greater levels.

Research and literature link organizational stress to such things as diminished job satisfaction, increased employee turnover, decreased motivation and low morale.

Improving morale is everyone’s responsibility, but the idea is to improve morale in a way that creates the greatest positive impact.

Individual officers can change behaviors and attitudes, but supervisors and administrators have much more control and are often able to influence at much greater levels. So even though morale is everyone’s responsibility, the ultimate responsibility for declining morale is often placed back on leadership, at least through the eyes of the officer.

Why Does Morale Matter?

Morale is a thermometer for the health of your department. Low morale levels may indicate a systemic problem.

Many officers have said that morale is low in their departments, explaining that it has been this way for years. However, declining morale is not something that generally occurs overnight. Oftentimes, morale simply slips away. We all get caught up in the mundane, day-to-day tasks associated with work, and we tend to forget about the human component. It becomes each man and woman for his or her self.

So how do we get to a place where work is no longer enjoyable? How do we get to a place where people don’t feel appreciated for their contributions? More importantly, how can we begin to reverse the wheels and start improving the morale in your department today?

Declining Morale

The idea of declining morale leads one to believe that morale once existed, and hopefully, it has. Nothing will be perfect, personalities will clash, and the bureaucracy will often win out, but deep down, do you remember a time when morale was strong? When there was a sense of purpose and brotherhood/sisterhood? What did this time look like? And what changed? In order to know where to begin, one needs to know where they came from and what they hope to accomplish.

eight Steps Toward Improving Morale

1. Give credit where credit is due. Always praise in public and discipline in private.

2. Start looking for the good. It is very easy to see the bad or the wrong, but be intentional to notice officers doing things right and reward accordingly.

3. Stop micromanaging. If you hire someone to do the job, then let him or her do it. You obviously thought they were qualified when you hired them. Will mistakes be made? Of course, but those are learning moments. Morale can drop if your officers don’t think you have faith in them.

4. For supervisors: Plug in and mean it. Get to know the officers you are in charge of. Show a real interest in them and their families. This can help you two-fold. You may begin to better understand your officers and you may see issues they are facing because you took the time to care.

5. Work on eliminating unnecessary conflict. Stress is a part of life, but no one needs additional issues to deal with. Address any and all conflict so it does not affect morale.

6. As a supervisor, ask your crew what you can do to help increase morale. Set the example by acknowledging your responsibility to help increase morale.

7. Try celebrating birthdays, promotions, etc., while on duty. Buy a cake, have the crew sign a card. This is a small gesture, but it really goes a long way.

8. Communicate openly, honestly and, most importantly, positively.

The Importance of Morale

We know what low morale produces, but high morale is not only necessary for a healthy department, but also for healthy members. When morale is high, there is a buy-in to the goals and the overall mission of the department. High morale helps officers cope with the day-to-day demands, the ups and downs of the job, and with issues and discouragement that often coincide with police work.

Chae MH, Boyle DJ. Police suicide: prevalence, risk, and protective factors. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 2013. 36(1), 91-118.

Gocke BW. Morale in a police department. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 36(3), 215-219.

This article, originally published 01/13/2015, has been updated.

Dr. Olivia Johnson holds a master’s in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Missouri, St. Louis and a doctorate in Organizational Leadership Management from the University of Phoenix, School of Advanced Studies. Dr. Johnson is a veteran of the United States Air Force, a former police officer, and published author. As the founder of the Blue Wall Institute she trains first responders on wellness issues, suicide awareness and prevention, peer support, stress and anger management, and leadership issues. Dr. Johnson writes for several publications and is an Adjunct Professor at Lindenwood University - Belleville, Illinois.

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