The 'no' leadership paradox: Trading popularity for respect

The desire to be well-liked can make it difficult for new supervisors to make unpopular decisions that may disappoint the officers they lead

By Mark Kollar

Leadership is not always easy and often requires substantial courage. While it certainly takes bravery to lead a team of officers into a dangerous situation, many newly appointed supervisors find it far more difficult to do something much less perilous: to say “no” to those under their command when confronted with a request or behavior they disapprove of. It is this ability to courageously face one’s subordinates and decline inappropriate requests that separates a professional leader from an amateur figurehead.

It may be as simple as asking to run a quick personal errand while on duty, or it might be more egregious, like wanting you to sign off on a sick day or overtime request you know to be inaccurate. More passively, a subordinate may just expect you to look the other way while they accept a free cup of coffee you both know is in contradiction to the chief’s new mandate regarding gratuities.

It is human nature to want to try to make everyone happy, be well-liked and popular especially with those we work alongside and lead. This desire makes it difficult to make tough, unpopular decisions.
It is human nature to want to try to make everyone happy, be well-liked and popular especially with those we work alongside and lead. This desire makes it difficult to make tough, unpopular decisions. (Photo/PoliceOne)

Officers are not stupid and almost always know when an action is in violation of policy; but by asking their ranking officer for permission to “bend” the rules, they seek to indemnify themselves and transfer any adverse consequences of their actions away from themselves and onto you. They are literally asking you to assume all responsibility for their questionable behavior. You accept all the risks; they get all the benefits. If they truly respected you, they would either just do the action without telling you (accepting all the consequences of their actions for themselves), or more appropriately, refrain from violating the rule at all for fear of disappointing you or facing your discipline.

It is human nature to want to try to make everyone happy, and be well-liked and popular, especially with those we work alongside and lead. This desire makes it difficult to make tough, unpopular decisions that may disappoint those very people – and perhaps even lead your team into conflict with you. However, to be truly effective, you must know who you are and define what you stand for – then never compromise those values regardless of the situation. To do otherwise may make you popular among the rank-and-file, but you will be secretly viewed as a puppet with your subordinates pulling the strings. Officers who ask such things of you might be friendly, but they certainly are no friends. You may be liked by those beneath you, but you will not be respected by any level of the organization.

By actively or passively allowing infractions of your policies, ethics, or laws, you not only hurt yourself, your team and your department, but you also compromise the trust of the public you are sworn to serve. It is tempting to consent to a “minor” violation out of social pressure and the desire to please. There is no doubt that an officer will be upset with you when you deny such a “simple” request. But such breaches of our core values often do far more harm in the long-term through diminished respect than the temporary discomfort caused by saying “no.” Further, consenting to any level of misconduct sets precedence, leaving you in a compromised situation whereby officers have damaging information on you that they can use to manipulate your future decisions – leading to a cycle of leniency and disorder.

Respect earned by always doing what you believe to be right can last throughout a career; popularity is fleeting, jeopardized by each arbitrary decision that someone inevitably won’t agree with. Follow these six steps to establish a culture of professionalism and respect within your team:

1. Set clear expectations

Setting unambiguous expectations, preferably from the very beginning of your tenure as a supervisor, is the first step in developing a framework of trust and respect within your team. The “rules” must be clearly understood in order to be followed. And, your enforcement of those rules should be consistent and fair. Do not permit any transgressions just to avoid conflict or simply for fear of disappointing someone you like. Again, your thought process must be on the long-term implications of the decision, not the immediate, albeit temporary, uncomfortableness of saying “no.” If you relent, you will regret. Likely, you will become resentful of the person and one day, the decision (or the culmination of multiple small decisions) will come back to haunt you.

2. Practice and acknowledge past mistakes

Saying “no” becomes easier with practice, though you will also find that inappropriate requests will diminish with time, as it becomes understood that you are a no-nonsense leader. However, this can be particularly difficult if the behavior is something you participated in prior to promotion. The hypocrisy of violating a rule one day, then enforcing it the next, will surely be pointed out to you by an angered officer looking for you to sanction the continuation of the unbecoming conduct. Acknowledge your past infractions, but be clear that you were wrong and are now making amends, opting to increase professionalism and ethical expectations. You will probably be accused of being a “company man” or similar disparagement, and may even lose some friends over it, but your increased stature and salary as a supervisor requires taking on the responsibility and duty to make difficult, courageous decisions despite any adverse personal consequences. 

3. Use logic

There are many ways to say no to someone without actually using the word “no.” Perhaps the easiest method is by simply stating that your rank does not afford you the authority to give them permission to violate a policy – your “permission” would be arbitrary and valueless, as you could both then be held accountable for the violation (and that you are not willing to accept that liability). Remember, separate the decision from the relationship and always do what you know to be right.

4. Pause

When asked for something you know is wrong, pause before any response to give yourself an opportunity to think. This silence is awkward and, many times, the officer making the questionable request will fill the void by retracting or modifying the request, possibly even acting as though they were joking by asking in the first place. If they persist, look at them quizzically and ask them if they are being serious. Most rational officers will take this as a cue that you find their request unreasonable and they will recant the request to save face.

5. Deflect

Another option is to engage the officer in self-assessment rather than directly answering. Ask the officer if the request violates established policies or procedures. If they don’t know, ask them to research it and report back to you prior to your decision. This deflects answering the question and places any blame of an unwelcome answer on the policy, rather than you. If they argue that you have the authority to countermand the policy, offer to run the request up the chain of command for clarification. Nearly every officer will relent at this point, not wanting their inappropriate request broadcast to senior administration. 

6. Be decisive and blunt

If these techniques are unsuccessful and you must answer, don’t delay saying “no.” Waiting only to be told “no” later makes someone more resentful of you and can diminish respect. Showing complete confidence without hesitancy in your decision with a firm and blunt answer further shows the officer that your disapproval of the conduct is steadfast and unwavering thus decreasing the possibility they will engage in argument with you over it or repeat such a request in the future. Unequivocal disapproval signals your belief that the request was unacceptable and they may even feel embarrassment or shame for asking.


Being a true leader in law enforcement requires thick skin, having the ability to handle criticism and even being temporarily shunned by those who were once your peers (and possibly still your friends). There is a short-term, negative consequence with subordinates for enforcing the rules because no one likes being told “no,” especially the Type A personalities often found within the law enforcement ranks. Officers may grumble, complain and criticize you and your decisions, making you feel unpopular and as though you are failing in your leadership position. However, saying “no” and always maintaining the highest level of integrity in your actions – and holding others accountable to that same level – ultimately results in obtaining greater respect throughout the department and fulfilling the duties you swore to uphold when accepting a promotion into a supervisory role.

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