The Power of Praise
By Steve Albrecht
The opposite side of discipline is praise. Employees who work for you want praise, even if they say they don’t. Many studies about employee engagement, job satisfaction, and retention show that pay and benefits are not the most important factors to encourage people to roll out of bed and come to work. Recognition for their efforts always comes out Number One.
This is not to suggest that every employee is so benevolent that they would work for free. (A big exception: go out and hug one of your reserve officers.) People want and expect fair pay for their efforts, but it’s not the most important reason why they do their jobs. As management guru Ken Blanchard (of the One-Minute Manager fame) suggests, your employees want you to “catch them doing things right.”
Some police supervisors are too stingy with praise and others are too liberal with it. There is a balance, found in the “Goldilocks Theory of Employee Treatment”: too hard, too soft, or just right. Some police supervisors or executives give employees written commendations for things they just don’t deserve, like for “skillfully directing traffic” at a major crime scene, fire, or natural disaster. Others don’t give them out when they are well-deserved: catching a serial bank robber, interrupting a major drug operation, or arresting a cold-case homicide suspect after months or even years of hardnosed police work.
There is an old belief in law enforcement supervision circles that lingers today: “Why should I give this guy a commendation for something he gets paid to do? Catching crooks is his job. Bakers bake bread. Plumbers fix pipes. Cops make arrests and keep the peace. His paycheck is reward enough.”
The opposite belief, especially for supervisors over 40, is that we have gone too soft in our society and we give out soccer trophies to dopey kids who kick the ball into the wrong goal every game. This complaint centers on the “entitled employee mentality,” which many older bosses see as breeding spoiled, lazy and undermotivated employees, who expect a pat on the back whenever they bother to get to work on time.
The best approach is in the middle. As you review the amount of formal and informal praise you have given your officers over the past year, ask yourself: “Have I done enough? Have I told the people who work for me that I appreciate their work, both out loud and on paper? Have I written formal commendations, more often, for real police work? Or worse yet, did I promise to write a commendation for an employee who works for me – either sworn or non-sworn – and then forgot to do it?”
Most people want to be recognized publicly, in front of their peers. And even if they say they don’t, they secretly do. Whenever someone in your family says, “Don’t make a big deal about my birthday” and you don’t, he or she complains, “Where’s my cake and presents? I thought you loved me!”
When police employees say to you they will be embarrassed if you read a formal commendation at roll call, too bad; do it anyway and give them the credit they deserve for going beyond ordinary police work and into extraordinary territory. Getting praise in front of co-workers can lead to a bit of good-natured teasing or some hidden resentments from immature, self-centered officers, but the majority of them feel good about themselves, their profession, and their co-workers when one of their own gets credit for doing the job the way it’s supposed to be done.
Some cops get commendations for actions others do all the time, which isn’t fair or logical. Some cops don’t get noticed for doing solid work, day after day, year after year. Neither is effective for better motivation and morale. Don’t write up low-level stuff; that’s what verbal recognition is for. Use your words of praise on paper wisely and more often.
Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999. His 15 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.