If good fences make good neighbors, then good boundaries make good bosses. Part of being a firm, fair, and consistent supervisor is caring enough and not caring too much. Sometimes the discipline you want to enforce on others should start with you.
The best form of discipline is the version you don’t have to use. It should be built into your agency’s culture, so people manage their own behavior and performance, taking ownership, being responsible and accountable. Your job is to make it easier for them to do their jobs, enforce policies, and tighten the culture when it starts to show loose ends.
But police leadership at higher levels is often about controlling your desire to step in and show your subordinates how you want things done. They already know you are in charge. It says so on your name plate, your desk plate, and your door. You don’t always need to demonstrate you’re in command, and in many cases, less of you is better. This is not to say you should close your door and let the world burn down outside, just that your best course of action is often to be a resource rather than an overlord.
There are two dreaded labels employees can affix to their bosses: micromanager or missing manager. Neither is popular with the rank and file, and for different reasons. You would think the missing manager would be a crowd favorite, never there, not around to bark orders and irritate people with an overarching presence.
But as much as the micromanager boss is despised for lacking the self-discipline to stay out of situations where he doesn’t belong, the missing manager is equally hated for not being around to give guidance, support and praise. There is a balance between “Leave us alone!” and “Why did you leave us alone?”
A veteran sex crimes detective, who has been a cop for 24 years and an investigator for half that time, makes an arrest in a high-profile rape case. Instead of letting this detective do her job, the lieutenant, who has never investigated this type of case before, but wants to impress the investigations captain, writes up a list of interrogation questions and orders (not asks or suggests) for the detective use on the suspect in the box.
This insults the detective’s skills, intelligence, experience, and knowledge of the case. “Help me by not helping me, LT,” she thinks as she trudges into the interrogation room, list in hand, knowing her boss will be watching the whole process on the TV camera monitor in the squad room.
If the captain had known his lieutenant was interfering in his detective’s investigations in this way, we would like to think he would put an immediate stop to it. If the detective was not genuinely and legitimately concerned about being disciplined by the lieutenant, she would have taken the list, dropped it into a file folder, and said, “Thanks, LT. I’ve got my methods and approach for this case, which I know will bring us all good results.”
Is this any different than a patrol sergeant trying to lock down a homicide scene for a media-sensitive murder, only to have the senior police leadership show up, lift the yellow tape, brush past him, and tramp all over the evidence?
The first thing I learned in sergeant’s school was, “Stay in your car. Go there only if they call you. You can swing by and take a look, but don’t get involved unless they ask you or you really, really need to, because of safety, policy, or the law. They won’t learn how to do their jobs; they will become too dependent on you; or you will undermine their authority in front of suspects, citizens, or their peers.”
Whatever rank you hold, let your officers, sergeants and detectives do their jobs. If all motivation is self-motivation, then good discipline starts with self-discipline.
Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999. His books include Contact & Cover (C.C. Thomas); Streetwork; Surviving Street Patrol; and Tactical Perfection for Street Cops (all for Paladin Press). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.