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The Language You Use: Small Changes, Better Results

Written by Steve Albrecht

The language of supervision seems easy enough. Ask, tell or order your employees to do certain things or not do certain things and go about your business, right? Except, people judge you not only by the words you use, but by the way they hear those words.

You can say, “Nice job on that accident report,” and an employee can hear this statement three ways. Based on your tone and inflection with certain words, one way might sound sarcastic, one way might sound neutral, and one way might sound like praise.

Some employees are like dogs—they watch your every move and they analyze it in the context of the situation. Dogs are always looking at their masters and reading body language, eye contact, tone and posture. You already know which of your employees need near-constant reassurance. If you don’t engage with them every time you see them in the station or in the field, they think you’re mad at them.

Then there are those employees who if you asked them about their weekend, once, a long time ago, that covers it for them for a good long time. Some employees need much more praise than others. They need to be told they are doing a good job. Others may be more self-rewarding, recognizing internally that they are doing a good job. Every employee wants to be “caught doing things right,” rather than the opposite.

Think about how your use of two seemingly harmless little words, “but” versus “and,” can change your meaning to an employee who is overly-sensitive to his or her performance. “You did fine on the written part of the accident report, but in the future, your scene drawing needs improvement.”

What the employee tends to hear is, “My boss didn’t like my report.” Contrast that with, “You did fine on the written part of the accident report, and next time, you need to improve your scene drawing.”

We usually expect the other shoe to drop after hearing the word “but.” Whenever someone says, “I hate to disagree with you, but . . .” or “I’m not saying you’re wrong, but . . .” we expect them to disagree and point out how we were wrong. Changing the “but” to “and” can soften things.

Some women communicate in certain situations by using qualifiers, as in, “Could you handle this when you have a moment?” or “If you aren’t too busy, could you swing by and take care of this?” For some female police supervisors, this is a habit. If they have it, they need to break it. To men, qualifiers suggest either doubt or that the boss can be talked out of what she just asked them to do. Male supervisors don’t seem to use qualifiers as much. They say, “Go and do this.”

Some police supervisors use the “royal we” to a group of officers saying, “We need to do a better job on the homeless crime problems on Beat 127.” They should be speaking directly to the officer who has Beat 127 and say, “You need to do a better job on the homeless crime problems in your service area.”

And when it comes to communication context, timing is everything. If you use a stern tone to say to an employee who is heading out for the weekend off, “Be in my office Monday to talk about your job performance,” that employee spends the whole weekend worrying and wondering if he or she is going to get fired, investigated or sued. Come Monday, he or she gets mighty upset to learn that you actually have nothing but praise for his or her job performance. “You could have told me that before I left!” is certainly true.

Police supervision, coaching and your careful use of discipline is not about sugar-coating your words so everybody feels good. It’s about choosing your words carefully so that what you say is what you mean and what you mean is actually what they hear.

Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999. His books include “Contact & Cover,” “Streetwork,” “Surviving Street Patrol” and “Tactical Perfection for Street Cops.” He can be reached at steve@contactandcover.com.

Published in Law and Order, Nov 2011

Rating : 10.0


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