When most officers take a moment to reflect on the worst days of their career, it was not the work or the ‘bad guys’ on the street that caused their dissatisfaction. Rather, it was someone in the department with a ‘toxic personality’ who was poisoning the work environment. Toxic personalities are a reality in almost every law enforcement agency.
There are many different types and they can exist anywhere in the department, as a co-worker, subordinate, or supervisor. The common thread in each is that they are destroying the life’s work of others in one of the world’s most noble professions. The purpose of this article is to identify some of the toxic behaviors commonly seen in law enforcement agencies.
The fastest growing group of toxic personalities is those persons with a “Sense of Entitlement.” These individuals add little value to the organization, but feel they are entitled to preferential treatment or assignments. These individuals believe no one should ever question or assess their performance. When confronted about their conduct, they immediately claim they are being mistreated.
One of the more common toxic personalities is the “Constant Critic” who openly criticizes every decision, initiative or achievement. Oftentimes described as being negative, pessimistic or cynical, these individuals second-guess, find fault, and are contrary to any progress. In some cases, the critic may be an alienated follower who at one time was probably an exemplary employee. Due to a perceived sense of inequity, they became disengaged and increasingly critical of the entire organization. Still their actions minimize the positive performance of others.
The “Drama Kings / Queens” always overreact to situations and are constantly searching for issues they can blow out of proportion and bring attention to them. The “Gossip-mongers” are those persons who spread ill will and discontent throughout the department by communicating with innuendo, conspiracy, or falsehoods. Every initiative is described as having a hidden agenda to benefit a select individual or group.
The “Defenders of the Status Quo” are contrary to any change within the department. Their life’s work is an effort to maintain the continuity of mediocrity. Their sole purpose is to keep things as they used to be. Every proposal for change or improvement is met with how a similar effort was attempted many years before and why the proposal will not work.
When officers are assigned to special assignments such as narcotics, intelligence or canine units for extended periods, they begin to identify more with the unit than the organization as a whole. Some feel regular work is ‘beneath’ them. When their performance is questioned or they are transferred back to a regular assignment, they become defensive. In the most severe cases, they suggest leaders are corrupt and are transferring them to protect others.
The problems associated with toxic personalities are compounded when the individual is a supervisor. The “Bully” is the most obvious example of toxic supervisor. To get their way, they exhibit a variety of aggressive behaviors such as an explosive temper, slamming doors, or throwing tantrums. These individuals often try to verbally intimidate and threaten others physically or professionally.
The bully finds it easier to treat others in an insolent manner because they are less likely to be approached with issues or problems and it reaffirms their feelings of superiority. In reality, the true source of this behavior is the bully’s feelings of inferiority and sense of inadequacy.
The “Turf Protector” is the epitome of a dysfunctional leader. Instead of focusing on the overall effectiveness of the organization, these individuals are concentrated on how to protect their perceived turf or fiefdom. This behavior typically results in organizational silos and sandboxes. In the most severe instances, they drive the organization to a halt by their failure to share information or help others.
The “Harasser” focuses their attention on individuals they do not believe are worthy of their approval or to serve within their group. This is not the same as a good-humored joke. Rather, harassment is conduct that is intended to belittle, demean or minimize others. Ultimately, their purpose is to push the individual out of the group or agency. When this behavior is directed toward an individual because of their race, sex or age, it is a violation of federal law. The victims typically do not file a grievance or a file a legal claim, but simply transfer from the unit or leave the organization.
The “Credit Grabber” takes credit for the work of others. At the same time, these supervisors do not to take responsibility for their mistakes, but blame their employees or fellow supervisors. Those supervisors who never allow the mistakes of others to stay in the past are “Mistake Elephants.” Whenever an individual does something outstanding or is recommended for an assignment, they resurrect a mistake or failure from years in the past.
The “Saboteur” supervisor does not agree with the recommendations of others or the directives from commanders and instead provides others with their slant or interpretation of the proposal. This perspective almost always omits critical components for the successful implementation. Their goal is to gain more control, by keeping others in the dark and interfere with the successful implementation of the program.
While this list is not comprehensive, none of the toxic individuals are concerned with the needs of the organization or the communities they serve. Rather, it is their own selfish agenda they seek to enhance. Failing to address these behaviors has serious, long-term ramifications for the department. In the next two installments of this series, we will identify the ramifications of toxic personalities on the organization and then what must be done to minimize their existence.
Chief Dwayne Orrick has been the police chief in Cordele, Ga., for 20 years. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.