Biggest Mistake Bosses Make: Failure to Listen to Line Level

June 30, 2016

Part of the problem with moving up is way too many who get promoted forget why the positions for which they’ve been assigned were even invented.

I tell a story in every single one of my leadership classes about a conversation I had with my father that’s one of the handful that changed the course of my life.

The day after I received my shiny new gold sergeant’s badge I drove to my parent’s house to show my father. He had been a Chicago cop for about ten years, quitting when I was around six years old.

Minutes after my arrival he ushered me into his bedroom, sat me on the edge of the bed and paced for a second. I quickly found out what was on his mind. Suddenly Dad turned, gritted his teeth, shoved a finger in my face and expressly yelled: “Remember this always! The only reason you exist is to make sure they go home safe and to help them do their jobs!”

Later he added: You know, they didn’t invent sergeants because they needed to put stripes on sleeves. The patrol do the work. They are out there. They are the reason things work and why things fail!”

My Dad gave me a lot to ponder after that ten minute rant.

One of his points was this: When it comes to Mission with a capital M, it’s the “troops” who do the work and risk their lives. And they are the ones that know what’s going on—the good and certainly the bad—more than the brass does. And the only way to get that information?

Listen to them!

Brexit: How It Pertains

I was recently reminded of how those in power and in a position of influence lose sight of why they exist and how clueless they are to the thought processes of those they are responsible for as I watched and read about Britain voting to exit the European Union.

I was stunned at the responses and explanations being presented by politicians and the press, those who supposedly have all the answers—which clearly they don’t.

Prior to the vote the powerful pulled out all the stops. They brought in celebrities, top politicians, and dedicated most of the BBC time trying to influence the clueless masses to vote for staying in the Union.

One of those in the pro-separation camp decried that the BBC was engaged as a propaganda arm of the established political class.

Afterwards the headlines, the same politicians and those celebrities tried coming up with reasons the vote was 52-48 to exit.

A couple of examples.

CNN’s Christine Amanpour (not in my opinion a true reporter but more of a commentator) was practically apoplectic about the vote. “A lot of these Leave movements are led by the hard-right, very very xenophobic, anti-immigrant, very populist, nationalist, white identity politics—they are the leaders who are pushing this momentum.”

She went on and on as did others about—well basically—the stupidity of those who voted for the exit.

Many headlines all over the world chastised, ridiculed and denigrated those who voted to leave the EU.

Now I admit, I know next to nothing about the realities of the European Union and the financial implications of leaving it and, quite frankly, I don’t really care.

But what struck me is how after the vote, those in power and positions of influence still refused to listen to those who decided to be independent. To them, those who voted to leave were stupid, racist, ignorant, manipulated—anything but cogent actors.

Promotion Doesn’t Make You Smarter

What does this have to do with cops?

Well, I’ve written—as have countless others—about the drop in proactive policing, the plunge in morale, the massive early retirements and the trouble with recruiting young people to join the profession. And most law enforcement authors blame the media, the politicians, the pundits, and the legal masterminds for demonizing the profession.

And all would be correct to some degree. But …

It’s really the bosses who should take blame and responsibility for the current critical issues in law enforcement.

Why? Various and numerous reasons, but it can be narrowed down to one incontrovertible fact: They don’t listen to the troops!

Bosses believe what they either a) want to believe, b) are told to believe, or c) think they have to believe. They come up with excuse after excuse for the drop in proactive policing and the rise in crime.

I see some of the top-of-the-top chiefs in this country pontificating about the myriad of subtle reasons for this massive shift in law enforcement over the past two years, but few tell the truth. Why? Maybe because they don’t know what that truth is.

That they failed us.

How to Fix That?

Decision-makers need to stop talking to their top brass, politicians, think-tank buddies (PERF), and certainly the PC pundits in the media. Instead, they should step out of their offices walk down the hallway sit in the lunch rooms and talk to the only ones who know—those doing the damn job!

If the line level are the ones doing the doing, assigned to accomplish the Mission, and undertaking the fundamental tasks, then why in God’s name shouldn’t they be involved on a daily basis when it comes to strategy and assessment?

I’ve been critical of PERF several times and mostly because of this: Everyone on the board is either a Ph.D. or a top LE executive. It’s reflected in the flaws of their work: Apparently they’ve all lost touch with both common sense and what is happening on the street.

I was an aggressive and productive young cop with very high stats. I was a very effective detective and, braggingly, an exceptional interviewer. But once I made commander those skill-sets diminished quickly. And even if they didn’t, aspects of the job changed dramatically in a short amount of time.

I believe my greatest strength as a boss was listening to those who were smarter than me, more productive than me, and had skills I didn’t possess. Which at some point was almost all of them!

My Detective Division in the 90s was exceptionally successful. Why? Not because of their boss, but because of the detectives. What I did right was engage those who actually did the job. I knew them as people. I understood their passions and talents and let them do what they did best.

How did I know all these things? I listened to them which helped me get to know who they were, what was important to them, what were both their passions and talents. I used this information to assign based on talent and assess the morale and communal spirit. This made it a win-win for both the individuals as well as the organizational Mission.

The top brass in this country need to do more of that. Instead I see a bunch of politically correct administrators chasing their tails, trying to protect their jobs, and appeasing those with false beliefs about the ins-and-outs of the profession.

So when the proverbial feces hits the oscillating device they too often flap their gums about things that have nothing to do with the real issues at hand.

Forget, for a moment, community and police relations, which is of course a real and serious issue.  Let’s just look internally.  Right now, I believe the most serious problem in law enforcement is a lack of trust between line and management.

Yeah, the media is biased and negative, politicians use law enforcement to garner votes, the pundits are getting rich demonizing, etc., etc. All true and troublesome.

But when those of power within the profession tell falsehoods about rising crime, make feeble excuses for plummeting morale and the hiring-and-retention crisis, then those on the ground lose faith, give up, and shut up.

And if those who really know what’s going on shut-up, then how in the world can the problems be solved?


Hint: It’s not possible.

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