Promoting Agency Morale Up & Down the Food Chain

An open letter from a recently retired cop

By Jeff Shannon  |   Nov 30, 2017
Real leaders know who they're working for--and why.

The nerd in me I wish there were some objective, universal measure of LEO morale that would show us trends over the decades. That would be an interesting chart to look at. While the intuition and anecdotal evidence presented here may not be as convincing as a double blind randomized experiment, it still has good value.

Based on my own experience—and that of speaking with dozens of officers, both as I was approaching retirement and after actually retiring—I feel fairly confident saying that this is a particularly difficult time to be a cop. LEOs are wired up for sound and video to make sure they are held accountable to someone in IA for every utterance out of their mouths. It’s more difficult to hire and retain good officers when the economy is good, so from a recruiting and retention perspective, we are asking beat cops to do more with less. The medias if it bleeds, it leads approach continues to make life difficult for LEOs just trying to do the right thing and go home safe.

So, morale is low at the moment. And, to that end, I borrow a word from retired Naval SEAL Jocko Willinik: good.

With every adversity, there is an opportunity. If we can agree that, with regard to morale in the law enforcement industry, things are bad at the moment, then what opportunity has presented itself? Thanks for asking.

It’s with no small amount of trepidation that I briefly wade into the overhyped, thought leader-infested world of leadership training here. The following leadership recommendations come from someone who never promoted, which is plenty of reason to dismiss them out of hand. But they are also from someone who knows quite a bit about what motivates (and de-motivates) the right intentioned, creative, and thoughtful people that comprise the ranks of your agency. You might consider these recommendations Cliffs Notes from a billion dollar leadership industry.

Leaders vs. Managers

Leaders show up. Leaders show up in the briefing room. Not in the back looking at their cell phone, but in the front, and all ears. Leaders, regardless of rank, can handle a beat for ten hours. They clear their schedule for four days a month to work a beat. Why? So they can understand—on a direct level—the frustrations of their officers. Managers are in meetings or creating Excel spreadsheets when leaders are sipping coffee at the trunk with a beat cop.

Leaders dispense authentic praise: Leaders actively look for examples of good work by those under their sphere. When they find them, leaders start with thanking the officer directly for their good work, being specific about what they did. The commendation follows of course, but they personally thank the officer for his/her work.

Check list leaders [read: managers] have read a book chapter so they know on an intellectual level that they should show up and thank individual officers for a job well done. Trust me when I say, that officer knows when you’re checking something off your list. You have just wasted your time and further alienated this officer. On the other hand, if the leader feels thankful for the officers good work, that will come out as well.

Lets linger on this point for a moment, because it is probably the single most impactful gesture law enforcement leaders can impart for agency morale. Behavioral psychology has clearly established that people are not motivated by punishment, but rather authentic praise. The opposite of praise is scrutiny. It’s beholden to every law enforcement executive to promote only those who know the difference here, and who have the natural capacity for authentic praise.

Of course, you can send your newly appointed sergeants and lieutenants to leadership school. But if that sergeant or lieutenant has not already exhibited the natural ability to look for people to praise, then you have already lost: Leadership vs. management.

Managers get things done. If you have a project, the manager will get it done. He or she will slam that project right down the throats of their supervisees. Because the manager has read the book, he or she will (maybe) cough out faint praise when things are going right. Then, he or she will hit that box on the checklist and go forth with the more important task of getting results.

Problem is: Cops aren’t widgets. We are people dealing with people—very often people in distress.


Morale, regardless whether it’s high or low is contagious. As 2017 sputters out, morale among law enforcement professionals is low. Regardless of your rank, you were trained to be a leader, not a manager. Therefore, you’re responsible for the morale of those at your side.

Leaders instinctively move away from themselves, and into the world of those they supervise or work with. They understand the struggles of their co-workers not by attending seminars, but by doing the job they are charged with supervising over. Leaders regularly put on their blues and work a beat. Leaders actively look for, and authentically reward the good work of those under their charge.

If your job is to increase morale among the troops, my suggestion would be to strap on your boots and kick it with the folks that are your bread and butter. Just show up, praise good work, and watch the magic unfold.

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Jeff Shannon worked in law enforcement for 14 years. He is a nationally recognized expert in the area of police stress. He is a licensed mental health professional with a private practice specializing in treating first responders. In California, he is a certified Master Instructor through the California Commission on Police Standards and Training (POST). Jeff consults and provides training to law enforcement agencies through his company, BlueResilience (

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