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Personal Relationship with Subordinates

Written by Robert Roy Johnson

It is helpful and, arguably, essential, for police supervisors to establish personal relationships with their subordinates. This is accomplished by taking an interest in the personal lives of their officers. A police officer’s personal life is inseparable from his law enforcement function.

All human beings are composites, the sum of which defines us, the components of which directly effect each and every other aspect of our professional lives. Police officers are mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, wives, husbands, significant others, friends. The truly effective supervisor recognizes the value of taking an interest in the personal lives of his charges.

For instance, a police officer’s production had fallen off dramatically as of late. Supervisors had noticed some time previously that his work output had slowed. The watch commander directed a sergeant to address the issue with the subordinate at that time. The sergeant advised the officer that his supervisors were aware of the drop off and that he needed to pick up his output soon or there would be disciplinary repercussions.

Instead of improving, the situation became much worse. Disciplinary action was initiated, the officer became further embittered and resentful and, still, not surprisingly, his production remained low.

Handled differently, this scenario might have had a much more desirable outcome. Ideally, another sergeant on the watch overhears the lieutenant and the officer’s sergeant discussing the problem. That sergeant brings to their attention that the officer’s son had recently been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. This necessitated frequent trips to the hospital with his son, special care at home, and a great deal of strain on the officer’s entire family.

Naturally, all three supervisors agree that this is certainly a possible explanation for the slow down. Now, they are able to devise a plan to remedy the problem with a humane and compassionate approach that is much more likely to achieve the desired effect while addressing the personal needs of the officer.

Knowing something about that officer’s personal life made all of the difference in the outcome of this situation. However, this successful resolution was only achieved due to the fortuitous arrival of the sergeant who knew about the son’s illness. This did prevent the officer’s immediate supervisors from resorting to disciplinary action when a more reasonable course of action was more appropriate here.

Ideally then, as many supervisors as possible should be aware of personal concerns of their subordinates. Obviously, supervisors cannot always count on the timely intervention of a helpful advisement from a knowledgeable source. Effective supervisors already are in the know.

So, how can supervisors ensure these misunderstanding do not occur with their employees? How does a supervisor best establish a personal relationship with her subordinates? And, how is this accomplished without appearing to pry?

Some suggestions follow that, if handled with common sense and sincerity, will assist in establishing a mutually respectful and friendly relationship without crossing the lines of decorum. Common everyday courtesies are quite effective at eliciting personal information that most officers are not only happy to share, but may actually have a desire to get off of their chest.

For starters, how about something as simple, but quite frankly taken for granted, as getting to know the first names of the people who work for you? Being addressed by your first name by a supervisor, especially one removed by several ranks, often has an exhilarating effect on an officer.

Politicians often surround themselves with aides who whisper the first names of approaching individuals. A candidate soliciting votes knows the value of this personal touch. Addressing a constituent by their first name is an important first step to securing loyalty. This is no less effective for a supervisor.

As one veteran officer observed, “I had worked for a sergeant for a few weeks on a detail several years prior. That sergeant rose through the ranks over the years to become a deputy chief. One day at headquarters, I passed him in the hall. I said ‘hello chief’ and he returned the greeting by addressing me by my first name. I can’t describe the feeling. I only know that, if this deputy chief were to ask something of me, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

Now, not everyone has that skill to remember names of people from years ago. And supervisors cannot normally be expected to remember the first names of everyone with whom they have worked. However, knowing the first names of your immediate subordinates and referring to them in this manner, rather than the customary “officer” or, worse yet, “hey, you” is an important first step to establishing a personal relationship with your subordinates.

If you know you will be interacting with a subordinate later in the day, find out her first name prior to the meeting. Another idea used by one watch commander was to list the first names of all of the officers on the worksheets. These documents were used daily for roll call and utilized by the sergeants when filling out their supervisors logs. This facilitated both the watch commander’s and the sergeant’s ability to refer to subordinates by their first names.

Now, noting a first name and remembering it are obviously not the same. The latter, to varying degrees for individual supervisors, may require some extra effort. There are methods to improve name memory though that will increase the odds that the interaction will begin with a friendly first name greeting.

Making associations is often a successful approach. One method of association involves studying the officer and identifying a characteristic that could be associated with their first name. An obvious example would be “tall Paul.” Keep in mind that this can work even if he is not tall. Simply picture him as extremely tall and burn the image in your mind.

Or, perhaps there is something about the officer that reminds you of someone close to you who shares the same name. Or, an officer named Brad, more than likely, looks nothing like the movie star, Brad Pitt. Simply put in your mind that Brad is no Brad Pitt. There are endless possibilities.

There are also opportunities at roll call to make some associations. As most supervisors know, officers are creatures of habit. Most personnel at roll call will sit in the same place everyday. An officer can easily become (in your mind) “in the back Jack.” Another helpful device is to associate something personal about the officer with her name. Obviously, this requires getting to know the officer better, which, after all, is part and parcel of establishing the personal relationship to begin with. Learning that an officer is an avid softball player presents an easy leap to remember “Joe” when he is associated with DiMaggio.

An officer who is very politically opinionated might be associated with a radio commentator or a former president with the same first name. Or, it can be as simple as, the officer who always combs his hair at roll call could be associated with a glamorous movie star of the same name. As well, if Kate is sometimes late, well, she becomes late Kate (just be careful you drop the “late” before addressing her).

As important as using first names can be, the wise supervisor will take this personal approach even further. Utilizing a first name opens the door to learn more about your subordinates. Then, to take a personal interest in their lives, requires only, very simply, asking some questions. However, it is important to engage in this worthwhile endeavor in a manner which is not perceived as intrusive or prying. It is not an inquisition.

Do a little homework first. Most departments have personnel files accessible to supervisors which contain basic information on which to begin a friendly exchange with a subordinate. Is the officer married? Children? Then, “how’s your family adjusting to you working the graveyard shift, Mary?” An officer was in the military? “Is that how they’d do it in the corps, Bill?”

Hopefully, these exchanges will lead to dialogue. More than likely, Officer Mary will be eager to talk about how graveyards are impacting her family. In addition, this is how the supervisor learns that Mary’s three year old son is autistic, or her fourteen year old daughter is on the high school swim team. The supervisor learns that officer Bill did two stints in the Marines, one in desert storm and the other in Iraq. Several officers are going to night school to further their formal education.

Two officers are going through a divorce and one is in marriage counseling. An officer returning from vacation will probably be eager to share her experiences of the family trip to Yellowstone. Another officer may have gone to visit the police memorial in Washington, DC and would like to talk about the officer’s name or names he went there to see. There is a wealth of information to be gained that will give the supervisor great insight into the personalities and personal concerns of the officers working for him.

Information of this nature also leads to an enhanced understanding of the motivation behind an officer’s behavior. Of course a supervisor can assume that an officer who is frequently late simply has sloppy work habits or a poor work ethic. But if the supervisor is wrong in that assumption, his attempts to correct the behavior will go awry.

However, if the supervisor learns that the officer’s wife just gave birth to twins and he’s up all night assisting his wife with crying babies, then perhaps some compassion and understanding attends the necessary talk the supervisor must have with the officer. Once the supervisor-subordinate barrier is breeched, there could be a literal flood of information. More information leads to further interest in the subordinate’s life.

Concomitantly, the subordinate begins to see the supervisor as a person interested in her life, rather than as merely a boss. Also, you build on the relationship with this information. Now you can inquire from time to time as to how Mary’s son is coming along in his new school. How are Joe’s twins coming along? How is Bill the marine adjusting to civilian life?

Invariably and sadly, police officers become ill, sometimes seriously. As well, their family members become ill and pass away. At the time, particularly for officers injured in the line of duty, there is a great deal of attention directed to the situation. Then, as time passes, the officer is forgotten. An officer who is off work because she broke her arm or leg probably is sitting at home missing her fellow officers and missing police work. A caring supervisor will remember his officers. A phone call, or, perhaps, even a visit, could mean the world to the officer.

A supervisor must be mindful though in this type of situation that this gesture might be perceived as checking up on the officer or applying pressure to return to duty. It is essential to conduct the interaction in such a manner that there can be no mistake that the supervisor’s primary concern is the well-being of the officer. When the officer finally returns to work, this gesture will not be forgotten.

Also, when there is a death in the family, too often the sentiments are expressed at the wake and funeral and then everyone moves on. However, the officer grieving the loss of a loved one will probably welcome the opportunity to talk about the recently departed weeks, even months after they are gone. It is the wise and kind supervisor who cares enough to inquire.

This personal interest in the well-being of subordinates is not limited to one on one interactions either. At roll call, when there is time, a supervisor can digress from the normal notifications, bulletins, look-outs, and department notices to take a moment to share items of interest and benefit to the officers. Examples of this could be addressing the officers about topics such as depression, suicide, or domestic strife that are, unfortunately all too common issues for police officers.

In addition, the supervisor could read the newspapers and various magazines with an eye towards articles that could be shared with the unit. Discussing the latest information or study on health, such as diet, stress reduction techniques, or exercise might be of interest to some of the subordinates.

Ideally, officers will then approach the supervisor to talk about this shared information. Now the supervisor learns of an officer’s interest in a healthy diet, or another’s exercise routine, or still another’s stress reduction program. At the very least, the supervisor presents herself as one who is interested in the personal well-being of her officers.

There are two important caveats. First, the supervisor must take care to polish his interactional technique. If the supervisor uses the aforementioned suggestions to establish a personal relationship with subordinates, but then fails to employ effective listening skills, all may be lost.

Secondly, and this is essential, employing any of these preceding suggestions will probably be fruitless at best, or counterproductive at worst, if the supervisor is not sincerely interested. No supervisor should even attempt this approach if his interest is feigned. Subordinates will recognize this instantly and the relationship will probably be worse than if the supervisor showed no interest at all.

Of course, assuming supervisors do really care about their officers and do desire to be more effective and efficient supervisors, then establishing a personal relationship with their subordinates serves several purposes. Officers will feel more comfortable sharing personal feelings with the supervisor. Everyone likes to talk about themselves, their lives, their personal concerns.

This opportunity to open up to a supervisor will contribute to an officer’s emotional well-being. An emotionally secure officer will be a happier, more productive officer. The supervisor who establishes these personal relationships is able to more effectively supervise from a position of understanding. Knowledge is power in the sense that this information about subordinate’s personal lives allows the supervisor to lead with compassion and understanding.

The officer who feels he as a personal relationship with his supervisor (no matter how rudimentary) is more likely to extend himself for the supervisor. The end results are effective supervision and a productive work force that is motivated by concerned and caring management.

Robert Roy Johnson is a 33-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, currently at the rank of Captain. He can be reached via e-mail at robroyj@sbcglobal.net.


Published in Law and Order, Mar 2005

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