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Motivation: Rethinking the Supervisor's Role

Law enforcement agencies expend tremendous resources recruiting and hiring new officers. Before recruits can become law enforcement professionals, they must undergo comprehensive tests, rigorous background examinations, and extensive physical training sessions. However, despite the difficulties associated with identifying and training recruits, it appears that an ever-increasing number of police agencies throughout the nation are having trouble retaining their officers.

It seems that a growing number of officers are no longer satisfied with their jobs, agencies or managers. These losses not only create significant financial problems for the agencies affected, but they can also lower morale and reduce public safety. While a number of factors contribute to this trend, one often-overlooked feature is the role of the immediate supervisor.

Virtually all officers join law enforcement because they want to be part of a team. They want to be part of an organization and to make a difference in their communities and departments. Officers begin their careers full of hope, optimism, and energy. What supervisors do from that point forward determines officers’ levels of job satisfaction and, in turn, their commitment to the organization and productivity. According to a recent Gallup Management Journal

survey of about 200,000 workers from 36 different organizations and across 21 different industries, employees do not leave “companies.” They leave managers and supervisors.

Role of the Supervisor

In the most traditional sense, managers believe that the key to motivating officers is good pay and benefits. An officer’s job is seen in relatively straightforward terms: follow protocols and procedures, and do not create problems for the organization. Similarly, a supervisor’s job is to enforce policies, rules, and regulations. The problem with this philosophy, however, is that officers are motivated by more than monetary rewards. Although pay and benefits are important, they are not among the factors that separate productive, engaged officers from other, less-committed employees.

If the Gallup survey findings are accurate, officers who are unhappy with their supervisors are more likely to leave their departments. Of those who remain, unhappy officers are more apt to be absent, suffer more symptoms of fatigue, burnout, or anxiety, and less likely to identify with organizational goals. On the other hand, happy, motivated officers tend to find their jobs more pleasurable, support organizational goals and objectives, and use less sick time.

If supervisors play a critical role in motivation, what can they do to better encourage their officers? Fortunately, law enforcement is not the only profession concerned with employee motivation, retention, and performance. Work psychologists and social scientists have been studying the kinds of factors that contribute to productive employees and quality organizations for decades. Although the results have sometimes been difficult to interpret, a number of consistent findings have emerged that may help law enforcement supervisors and managers.

Motivation Defined

Before we can motivate employees, we need to understand what motivation is and how it works. In simplest terms, work motivation is the energetic force behind the form, intensity, and persistence of an employee’s behavior. It is the force that helps explain why officers pursue certain goals, how they attempt to accomplish those goals, how hard they will work to do so, and the degree of adversity they are willing to overcome. Employees are typically motivated by a combination of external (i.e., pay and benefits) and internal (i.e., commitment and positive effect) factors. Of the two types, internal motivation most strongly relates to organizational commitment, job performance, absenteeism, and turnover.

Because supervisors sometimes believe that officers are motivated primarily by pay and benefits, they can feel powerless to influence their subordinates. However, as most administrators know from personal experience, there can be significant differences between the motivation and productivity of employees working for the same organization but for different supervisors. These differences are the result of effective and ineffective supervisory practices.

A supervisor’s behaviors and attitudes have a direct impact on the ways officers perceive their roles and responsibilities, how strongly they identify with the agency’s values and mission, and how valuable officers believe they are to their organizations, coworkers, and communities. Three factors that contribute directly to officer motivation are effective communication, affective commitment, and rewards.

Effective Communication

A lot has been written about the relationship between effective communication and leadership. Despite a wealth of research, many supervisors are still unclear on the meaning of “effective communication.” Clearly, most officers want to do a good job for their supervisors, coworkers, and agencies. Many officers also want to advance within their organizations and often feel that the best way to improve their performance is feedback. To accomplish either of these objectives, officers need a clear, positive understanding of their roles and responsibilities. In other words, officers need to know what they are doing correctly, what they are doing incorrectly, and how to improve.

First-line supervisors are in a unique position to communicate the organization’s goals, values, and concerns. Officers have difficultly supporting a policy or procedure when they do not understand its purpose. Supervisors can solve this problem by communicating openly and honestly with their officers. They can also model support for new policies through their words, attitudes, and actions.

Open communication and modeling can also provide officers with greater opportunities for growth, responsibility, and recognition by clarifying expectations. To be truly effective, supervisors should take this process one step further by helping officers understand the roles of their individual units or shifts in achieving the organization’s objectives. The better an officer understands what is expected, the easier it is to meet those obligations.

Supervisors’ expectations are the objectives that officers use to assess their progress, as well as the landmarks that guide them toward success. When supervisors fail to communicate their expectations, officers may hesitate and lose confidence in themselves and the organization. There is an important difference, however, between clear expectations and control. Although there are instances in law enforcement when an officer’s actions are dictated by law or policy, setting expectations should not become an exercise in power. The best supervisors define their objectives and then allow officers to decide on the best ways to accomplish those jobs.

In addition to communicating the organization’s vision, supervisors should listen and respond to employee feedback. All human beings—including law enforcement professionals—have a basic need for validation. Most officers understand that their supervisors are powerless to change long-standing policies, equipment problems, or salary issues. Nonetheless, the ways that supervisors respond to employees’ concerns can have a profound impact on morale and motivation. Good supervisors demonstrate concern by listening genuinely to their officers.

It is important to remember that most officers can spot insincerity. Because a significant portion of communication occurs nonverbally, supervisors should avoid mixed messages. When communicating with officers, supervisors should be sure that their messages are genuine and caring. Anything less can damage the supervisor’s credibility and the relationship.

Effective Commitment

Officers are motivated on both rational and emotional levels. All human beings form strong attitudes about virtually everything they encounter, including their jobs, supervisors, and organizations. According to social scientists, cognitive and affective attitudes influence evaluations. Cognitive attitudes focus primarily on evaluations of the relevant facts, such as the objective merits of a job (i.e., pay and benefits). Conversely, affective attitudes are founded more on emotions and values than observable facts.

While officers like to believe that their attitudes are primarily cognitive, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, the attitudes of officers toward their agencies, jobs, and supervisors are usually based more on emotion than reason. A hurtful experience with a supervisor can create a negative emotional attitude that is difficult to change. Positive attitudes are important because officers who “feel good” about their agencies are likely to be more cooperative, more productive, and earn higher performance ratings. One factor that contributes to positive effect and, in turn, to organizational commitment and job performance is the perception of organizational support.

Perceived organizational support is simply the extent to which officers believe that the agency cares about their contributions and welfare. This is especially important for supervisors to understand because officers’ beliefs are, to a large extent, based on the actions of their immediate managers. Because most officers have only limited contact with senior management, the administration’s credibility often depends on the conduct of its first-line supervisors. Officers view the behaviors of their immediate supervisors as signs of their value by the larger agency, that is, an indication of how the department feels about them.

If officers believe that the department cares about their welfare, goals, and career aspirations, they are more likely to see the agency in a positive light. On the other hand, when officers feel that the agency is not concerned with their welfare, they perceive little organizational support, which can generate negative emotions and lower performance. When supervisors communicate supportive messages, officers are more likely to feel positively about the agency. In contrast, when supervisors communicate disinterest or distrust, it is likely to decrease officer morale, motivation, and productivity.

For years, work psychologists have known that employees’ attitudes toward work are influenced significantly by the quality of relationships with their immediate supervisors. Effective supervisors recognize this and go out of their way to treat officers as individuals rather than clones. They understand that each officer has unique talents, goals, and interests. Good supervisors get to know their officers at a personal level, help them grow, and celebrate their achievements, even when they surpass those of the supervisor. In effect, good supervisors care about their officers, and the employees know it.


Law enforcement agencies typically value loyalty and dedication from their officers. However, officers are more interested in the department’s commitment to them. Today’s officers are smart, energetic, and creative employees who want to help solve problems in their agencies and communities. Increasing numbers of newly hired officers have college degrees, while others have extensive professional experience. This demographic shift means that today’s officers value a mutually beneficial relationship where they are respected and recognized for their accomplishments.

Not surprisingly, officers believe that being valued by their agency is likely to result in a variety of benefits, including approval, respect, and promotion. To the extent that officers and their departments value the relationship, they rely on the norm of reciprocity to meet their needs. As long as officers believe that their efforts are being rewarded, they will be satisfied with their agency.

However, when the department fails to reward officers for their hard work and commitment, it can have a negative effect on morale and productivity. Supervisors should take every opportunity to thank their officers both publicly and privately for their hard work. Simply acknowledging an officer’s sacrifices can goes a long way toward improving morale and motivation.

Supervisors should remember that employees’ goals help determine the direction, intensity, and persistence of their behavior. The organizational goals that officers select are based on the anticipated rewards or punishments associated with those choices. Officers who believe that their efforts on behalf of the department will be rewarded are more likely to pursue the agency’s goals. In contrast, when officers feel that their work will go unrecognized or unrewarded, they are less likely to identify with their agency’s objectives. In some cases, frustration may cause a withdrawal reaction. Officers who feel undervalued or unappreciated may cope by looking for another agency with better career opportunities.

Supervisors should always remember that officers have a profound sense of fairness. Most officers do not expect a free ride, but they do expect to be rewarded for their sacrifices and hard work. The good news is that many officers see training, mentoring, or coaching by a supervisor as important opportunities for personal growth. This is because encouragement of this type is more likely to help with promotion or advancement. As coaching and mentoring are normal aspects of supervision, this offers supervisors an excellent opportunity to reward employees for a job well done without competing for other limited resources.

Although many supervisors feel powerless to motivate their officers, this is not the case. Supervisors are in a unique position to communicate their expectations openly and honestly, build positive and supportive relationships, and reward officers for their hard work and sacrifice. Supervisors should use their influence to communicate clear expectations, positive messages, and support for their agencies. By improving supervisor-subordinate relationships, it may be possible to impact the number of officers leaving their agencies.

Brian D. Fitch, Ph.D., is a sergeant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He has been with the department since 1982 and currently works in the Professional Development Bureau. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Mar 2008

Rating : 8.0

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Posted on : Oct 23 at 2:13 PM By tz

great article.... wonderful insight

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