7 steps to closing the communication gap that probably exists in your agency

Intentional seeking of feedback must become a cultural trait of law enforcement leadership


If you haven’t seen the communication loop in leadership class, crisis intervention training, or 9th grade English, you probably (and ironically) weren’t listening. Let’s review. An idea is formed in the mind of the person initiating a communication. The initiator translates the idea into words. The words are spoken or written and sent to someone with the intention that the receiver of their message gets the exact idea in their head as the initiator had in theirs. The initiator knows if that has been accomplished by feedback from the receiver affirming the message.

This happens with accuracy 100% of the time if you and the receiver have mind-reading capacity or you are both Vulcans skilled in the art of mind-melding. In other words, the communication loop is subject to many errors.

For police leaders, according to Police1’s second annual State of the Industry survey, the main error is not getting feedback to assess whether their message was accurately received.

Email surveys, paper surveys with suggestion box submission, roll call announcements, squad-level meetings and invitations for memos can all be used to provide team members access to expressing their ideas.
Email surveys, paper surveys with suggestion box submission, roll call announcements, squad-level meetings and invitations for memos can all be used to provide team members access to expressing their ideas. (Getty Images)

Over half of law enforcement respondents to a question about how agencies receive feedback on policy changes, training requirements and human resources issues say they are not asked for feedback. Another 29% say that feedback is given to leadership by their open-door policy. If my math is right only 20% of police employees are asked to provide feedback on management decisions.

Leaders may boast about their open-door policy but that is a passive invitation for employees to comment on their own initiative. This doesn’t provide a representative body of information, and fewer than 1 in 3 leaders employ even that. This not only limits the information needed to develop and implement policy, but it also implicitly tells the troops on the ground that their input is not valued, that management always knows best and that providing feedback is an act of aggression. The other choices in the survey included feedback via suggestion box, trade group negotiations, and listening sessions, about equal in response and totaling 20% of respondents.

Before we ask how this feedback gap can be resolved, leaders must ask themselves honestly if feedback even matters to them. Some leaders (perhaps better referred to as managers) think of feedback as criticism, complaints and interference. In small agencies, anonymity is nearly impossible and subtle retaliation can occur if management is insincere about asking for input. That attitude will institute feedback options, if at all, that are surface, obtained after policy implementation rather than during policy development. Suggestions will be entertained reluctantly with responses like “We’ve already tried that,” “You think I hadn’t considered that?” and “We’ll look into it.”

Intentional seeking of feedback must become a cultural trait of law enforcement leadership. The mechanisms may include informal lines of communication but must not rely on these passive efforts. Here are some key concepts to consider:

1. Begin at the beginning

Feedback can imply asking for opinions on a final product like “How does this cake taste?” A truly integrative process would ask for input at the earliest stage: “What kind of cake should we make?” “Do we even need a cake?” “What are your favorite recipes?” One might even begin by developing a feedback policy and soliciting ideas on how to encourage employee participation.

2. Use multiple venues

Processing large amounts of input can be tedious. Feedback surveys can be constructed for ease of scoring. If no one in management has had experience in constructing survey instruments, it would be wise to get counsel from someone who has so that the results can be easily digested.

Free software survey apps can help with design and analysis of surveys. If the feedback is qualitative, meaning you’re asking for written opinions, a word analysis program is helpful. Finding an intern or employee who can scan through the comments, detect themes, and identify the frequency with which those themes are expressed in a variety of words and examples can identify salient concerns.

Email surveys, paper surveys with suggestion box submission, roll call announcements, squad-level meetings and invitations for memos can all be used to provide team members access to expressing their ideas.

3. Get feedback at all stages

Don’t forget to revisit the decision-making process with updates, publishing of drafts, thanks for participation and the opportunity for review before the final approval. Part of seeking feedback is ensuring that workers know their thoughts are valued and not forgotten. It’s not all about developing policy, it’s also about enhancing morale.

4. Know what you’re looking for

Too many cooks spoil the broth, as they say, so the intent of getting feedback isn’t to implement every suggestion or objection. Seeking input on policy development helps the official policymakers avoid unintended consequences, groupthink (look that up if you’re not familiar), overlooked obstacles, and clarity of the product to avoid misunderstanding and misapplication.

5. Invite everyone to the party

Wise leaders know that not all information lay in the minds of those who wear a badge. Administrative assistants, victim service counselors, and custodial and maintenance personnel all have potential information that could affect the substance and execution of a policy. Getting potential consumers, such as attorneys, civilians, court personnel and others on board might be helpful as well. It may be helpful to be able to sift out the source of the feedback to see if civilian employees, citizens, or supervisors differ in their input. Veteran officers might carry more weight than a rookie, but rookies might be more open to change.

6. Involve team members in the soliciting process

In live venues like listening sessions and community meetings, is it always the top authority figure who sits or stands at the head of the table with the microphone? These optics can discourage the idea that everyone’s input is to be equally heard. Let a line officer or subordinate run the meeting or sit off to the side.

7. Validate employee investment

At the end of the process, when the new policy or new training is implemented, be sure that part of the introductory statements includes thanks for the input of employees. Cite the percentage of employees that participated and remind the readers of the stages of the process in which feedback was solicited. Even if some popular aspects of a policy were not included in the final product for budget or legal reasons, if the workforce gets that feedback from the policymakers it can enhance acceptance. This will not only add to the culture of valuing workers but should reduce complaints and increase compliance because of the participative nature of the process.

Download more survey findings here.

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