4 ways to improve communications with your officers
Following these tips today is an investment that will improve police officer morale, retention and perceptions tomorrow
This feature is part of Police1's Digital Edition, What cops want in 2022, which provides a summary and analysis of the results of Police1's State of the Industry survey of 2,376 officers about the support they need from their first-line supervisors, chiefs and sheriffs. Download the complete report here.
While most police leaders across the nation have been paying close attention to the changing attitudes toward police by their communities, the media and elected officials, there is another critical audience that is foundational to an agency’s success – your employees.
Police1’s second annual State of the Industry survey provides compelling insights as to how officers perceive external communication by their agencies’ leaders. What it clearly indicates is that internal communications could use some work as well.
Don’t feel bad, a Gallup poll conducted a few years ago found that only 13% of American employees felt their bosses communicated effectively.  However, these results are a clarion call to police leaders. The way we communicate, both internally and externally, must be revamped to ensure our messages are not only heard but truly understood.
Here are a few tips you can employ today to improve employee relations, officer retention and perceptions tomorrow.
1. Know your organization
“Communication shouldn’t be just another hat that a CEO wears. It should be at the core of everything you do.” – Scott Beck, CEO, CHG Healthcare
As far back as the 1960s, academia was warning law enforcement that the quasi-military model of police leadership did not support or contribute to employee satisfaction or commitment; but constructive dialog and open lines of communication did.  Decades later, the paramilitary culture that stymies true and valued dialogue often remains. Meanwhile, the complexity and speed at which law enforcement is transforming are exponential. But of course, we all know there are two things cops hate – status quo and change!
A successful leader understands an agency’s cultural past and honors traditions that reflect a department’s core values. But they must also present, credibly and consistently, a path forward. A new chief that changes an agency’s path for no reason but to put their mark on the organization is in for a tough road. The leader who engages thoughtfully with employees across the organization and truly values employee input before making significant decisions will be much more successful.
2. Learn to listen, listen to learn
“Ask regularly, listen faithfully, and follow through resolutely – this is what your team needs from you, this shows your commitment to leading by listening.” – Doug Conant, Leadership Author and Keynote Speaker
Leadership communication involves taking the time to truly understand employee perceptions and to garner constructive input. Know the difference between discussing a topic to find solutions and having an open-ended dialog with the goal of better understanding.
Leadership expert Doug Conant uses a simple tenet for being a good listening leader: “Listen with your head for evidence, your heart for energy, and exponentially to other voices to get a true understanding of the issue.”  In other words, listen to learn, not to change minds or be right. Great communicators listen more than they speak. The input you receive will be invaluable.
3. Understand your unique audience
“The frontline workforce is not sprinkled with a handful of cynics. It is cynical through and through … Frontline supervisors – not managers – are the opinion leaders in your organization.” – T.J. Larkin, Ph.D., Communication Consultant 
The Police1 survey indicates newer and close-to-retirement officers think better of management communication efforts than the rest of the pack. Not a surprise when you think about it. New officers haven’t experienced enough on the job to be as cynical as their long-hauler colleagues, and those getting ready to retire may be part of management or are simply looking forward to being done with the job.
Skeptical employees tend to ascribe the worst possible motives to leadership decisions, especially when an agency is changing, is in crisis, or is under scrutiny.  While providing facts in tough situations is important, leaders must also understand that emotion plays a significant role in one’s ability to comprehend information. If a leader simply conveys facts, you may not be addressing the true concerns of employees. Emotion is involved in so many police issues – whether it be changing shift schedules, enacting a new policy, or commenting on a use of force situation. Each employee looks to their leader to understand how an issue will affect them personally.
4. Know that silence has consequences
"Every word has consequences. Every silence, too." – Jean-Paul Sartre, 20th-century French Philosopher
Leaders need to communicate regularly to help ensure everyone is receiving timely, consistent and relevant information – and has an opportunity to be heard. Any void of trusted information will be filled with information that may or may not be trustworthy.
People tend to trust the person who has the most influence on their jobs, so maybe a monthly chief’s email or video won’t work, but weekly meetings with lieutenants and sergeants, who are most critical in setting internal culture, would. Those frontline supervisors can then go back to their people and convey the chief’s or sheriff’s message. If you choose not to communicate, that void will be filled with rumor, innuendo and misinformation.
The bottom line
Prioritize employee communications. Communicate frequently and use mediums that work for your agency. Young officers may prefer text messages to roll calls; agencies with more senior members may still want monthly opportunities to meet with leadership.
Whatever your decision, the opportunities to communicate should be as interactive as possible (“Management by Walking Around") and messaging should be forward-leaning. Start by showing that you care about what your employees think. Then, convey what the agency is doing and why, where it’s going, how it’s going to get there and each employee’s role in that mission.
Your agency’s success depends wholly on your greatest asset – your people. Your employees are also your greatest message amplifiers! Pay them the attention they deserve and put the importance of internal communication on par with your communication efforts with your community, elected officials and the media.
In their own words
When asked how supervisors could improve their performance, here’s what respondents had to say regarding communications:
- Communicate agency issues more clearly and frequently.
- Communicate better on department issues that are going on and how the command staff plans on working on those issues.
- Communicate in all directions – horizontally and vertically.
- Communicate more consistently.
- Communicate more often.
- Communicate other than just emails.
- Communicate positive feedback to officers.
- Communicate with each member and share the knowledge they have.
- Communicate without being asked first.
Download more survey findings here.
Modzelewski J. (2019) Talk is Chief: Leadership, Communication & Credibility in a High-Stakes World. RosettaBooks.
1. Modzelewski J. (2019) Talk is Chief: Leadership, Communication & Credibility in a High-Stakes World. RosettaBooks.
2. Jermier JM, Berkes LJ. (1979) Leader behavior in a police command bureaucracy; A closer look at the quasi-military model. Administrative Science Quarterly. 24:1.
3. Conant D. (2013) Are you listening like a leader, July 19, 2013.
4. Larkin TJ, Larkin S. (1996) Reaching and changing frontline employees. Harvard Business Review (May-June).
5. Lukaszewski J. (2014) Strategic Rethinking of Employee Communications.