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Peer Leadership Group for Employee-Management Communications

Written by Jay Burch

One of the struggles today’s police administrators often face is communicating effectively with employees. This is especially true for how to get employees to “buy” into the organization or to become a “stakeholder” by taking ownership within the agency. How does an administrator get an employee to understand the police department is not the chief’s department but the employees’ department? How does an administrator respond to festering problems within the employee ranks? The answer to these and other problems might be found in the concept of the Peer Leadership Group (PLG).

Changing Attitudes
It was unheard of not that many years ago that a new officer would ask “why” when given orders or a task to complete. Today, police commanders and supervisors had best be prepared for this because it is not uncommon for an officer to ask why a certain project, policy or task needs to be completed. The opinion of many is that it is negative or insubordinate for an officer to question a supervisor or command staff member in such a way, but others think it is positive because it ensures that a commander will prepare in detail for the task to be completed.

It goes back to the old adage of being a parent and telling your kids to do something “because I told you so.” Many times, a project or task may need to be challenged if the administer or supervisor does not have a good reason for the task at hand to be completed.

Having twice now come to lead an agency as an “outsider,” establishing trust and opening the lines of communication are usually the two top issues. The approach I use to accomplish these goals is to meet individually with each employee in the first few days or weeks I am on the job. I do not look at personnel files or talk to command staff members about any employee before these meetings to avoid any biases or preconceived notions.

I allow the employees to talk about anything they want, whether it be about themselves, the department, other employees, etc., and then I ask them what they like best about the agency and what they like least. Finally, I ask if they could change just one thing about the organization, what it would be. This approach has been successful to a degree and starts to establish trust and employee ownership early on because they know their opinion counts—or at least is heard.

To Really Serve
The higher one advances in this profession, the more the person needs to serve, not be served. This job is not about ME, and being a police chief is not about YOU. It is about our employees. Although we are held accountable and responsible, most of these men and women would be out there tomorrow doing their job whether we led the agency or not. In other words, you may have to park your ego to be a chief or sheriff. Seek honest employee feedback, without fear of retribution, on the things about you they respect and the things about you they might prefer you to do differently.

Although sometimes painful to hear, the process is very positive in the long term. Instead of always trying to protect our jobs, we should be training and developing our staff members to one day do our job themselves. I require each level of supervision in the department to train and develop their employees to prepare them to advance to the next level. The benefit of this concept is that it gives ownership to the employees. They see themselves as part of the future of the department.

Employees really are our greatest asset. You don’t have to go to grad school to figure that one out. Yet, there are still too many in chief administration positions who somehow feel because they made the rank, they are suddenly better than everyone else. I read recently of a new chief in a mid-sized Oklahoma municipal department who came in from an outside agency and immediately tried to bully (for lack of a better description) his new employees.

According to the local paper, in the first few months on the job, he’s filed suit on one officer he fired, (who later got his job back through arbitration), and the chief also filed suit on a local head of a neighborhood watch-type organization. To me, that is not a very good start to taking over a new department. The perception of the officers and possibly even the citizenry is totally negative toward this new, inexperienced chief.

If this new chief had the mindset of serving his new department rather than trying to lead forcefully, perhaps the outcome would have been different. My philosophy is to lead by who I am and not the power of my position. There is a real difference.

Rumors and Verbal Arsonists
Over the years as a police administrator, I still saw the rumor mill tearing at the department and impugning our success to become a highly trained and professional organization. There is no way to stop rumors, of course, but I have seen good employees quit over an unfounded rumor. There are also those who I call “verbal arsonists” who start a rumor or half-truth and spread it around a department as fact; then they stand back to watch the “fire” of controversy that they started.

Addressing rumors is a common problem for administrators and can deeply impact the effectiveness and efficiency of an organization. In my opinion, rumors are often a result of an administration that has issues of fairness, consistency and/or especially internal communication problems with and between front-line employees and supervision or command staff, including the chief.

Employee Meetings
I had one-on-one meetings with each employee when I came from “outside” to lead the agency, and these meetings were very productive. Three years later, after a couple of good employees left the department based mainly on rumors, I decided to have these one-on-one meetings again to try to address any issues within the department or concerns employees may have had about me personally or anyone else in the department.

While some employees were very forthright in offering their opinions, still some were hesitant to open up completely about issues or problems within the department. However, I learned from others while in the one-on-one meetings, without ever soliciting names, that these same “shy” employees who seemed hesitant to open up to me were more open with their peers.

Peer Leadership Group (PLG)
The one-on-one meetings had worked to a point, but there some would still talk about issues with their peers but would not bring the issues to their supervisors or management, often resulting in rumors or half-truths springing up. To improve the lines of communication and continue getting the employees to take ownership of the department by knowing that their opinions counted, I remembered a similar program from decades past to possibly bring the employees together on their own to join in the overall problem-solving efforts of the department.

The idea is not new, at least in the corporate culture, but it is not that common in law enforcement. I proposed this concept to the command staff and discussed it with some of the department’s already established peer leaders, and the idea was met with guarded enthusiasm. As cops, we never fully accept much of anything new, especially if it comes out of the chief’s office! I told the employees they could call their group anything they wanted but offered the idea of the Peer Leadership Group if nothing better was proposed. The name stuck—at least so far.

What the PLG is NOT
The PLG does not threaten the chain of command or offer employees to bypass any supervisor or command staff member. The PLG does not bypass department general orders or directives. Regular personnel issues including training, discipline, policy and procedure will continue to be handled through normal channels, and the PLG would not circumvent that process. The PLG is not a union or police association, and any issues involving those groups would likely be addressed within the rules and regulations of those entities.

How the PLG Concept Works
The employees, not the administration or command staff, choose a PLG committee of at least three employees, but it can be as many as the employees want depending on the size of the organization. These people sit on the PLG committee for a term decided by the employees. Larger organizations may form more than one committee.

For example, I recently spoke with a command staff person in a Utah county sheriff’s department who recommended a committee for the jailers as well as another for the patrol deputies because each group had unique issues at times different from the other employees.

If your organization is large enough to accommodate more than one PLG committee, that should not be an issue. Each committee may have different issues, but I would recommend all the departments members meet when common issues are discussed.

The employees can create their own committee rules, but a number of recommendations should be considered. Employees, not the command staff or administration, elect members of the PLG committee. The PLG committee needs at least three members to function but larger committee membership is recommended if possible for efficiency purposes. No one from the supervisor ranks or above is allowed to be on the committee.

The committee determines when and/or how often to meet. A PLG meeting may not be necessary if there are no issues to discuss. ANY employee can bring a problem or issue to the committee, and the committee determines what, if any, action needs to be taken, including whether the issue needs to be brought to the chief’s attention. This gives the employee a voice in the department. ANY department-related issue or matter is allowed to be discussed, including any personnel of the department.

Meetings that are just gripe sessions may not be productive. Try to offer solutions to problems instead of just bringing up a problem. The PLG is free to address and resolve issues in its own capacity without bringing them to the attention of command staff or administration if the committee prefers.

Once the committee has an issue it would like to discuss with the chief, a meeting will be scheduled. If an issue involves a supervisor or command staff member, he can be invited to this meeting, or a second meeting may be held with that supervisor with or without the chief present, depending on the wishes of the committee.

No retaliation or retribution shall be threatened or accomplished by supervisors, command staff members or the chief administrator due to issues brought forth by the PLG. The purpose of the PLG is to open the lines of communication between employees and the administration.

Is PLG The Solution?
The PLG is simply a way to provide a venue to address concerns among peers for employees who normally may be hesitant to bring issues of concern or ideas directly to a supervisor, command staff member or the chief administrator. We all know that just because we promote in an organization, we do not suddenly have all the answers or great ideas. There may be better ways of doing our jobs more efficiently.

Employees often have great ideas and concepts that can make our organizations more effective and efficient. How will we ever learn of these great ideas if we never listen to our own employees? How can an employee take ownership in his own organization if he does not feel like he has a voice in it? How can we open the employee-management communication lines? A Peer Leadership Group just might provide the answers.

Chief Jay Burch is a 21-year veteran police officer and has been a police chief for more than eight years, currently with the Mount Pleasant, TX Police. Burch has a master’s degree in law enforcement administration from Sam Houston State University, is a Master Certified Peace Officer in Texas, and a state licensed police instructor. He conducts police leadership and supervisor training, police department organizational assessments, and conducts chief executive interviews for municipalities and county agencies. He can be reached at jburch47@suddenlink.net.

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2008

Rating : 9.1


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