The Lost Art of the Teaching Moment – Reprinted from October 2004
I ran into an unfortunate situation recently that caused me to pause and reflect. I raised an issue during a meeting with management, and rather than using that issue as an opportunity to reinforce and educate statewide, management opted to utilize their tried and tested ass-chewing technique to get the point across. In hindsight, it was my fault. I’ve been on both sides of this organization, and while good management wants to know what goes on in the field to be proactive, I know that far too many DSP managers think a good demonstration of absolute authority keeps the ship sailing smoothly. There’s nothing like a public execution to keep the masses in line. Just ask Saddam Hussein.
After that, I couldn’t help but wonder what ever happened to the Art of the Teaching Moment? We can all remember back in our lives where someone made a profound difference in our lives. That person could have been a parent, sibling, teacher, coach or co-worker, but they all seemed to have the same goal in mind, to make us better at what we do. They didn’t do the work for us. If anything, they may have held us to a higher standard than necessary to ensure that we learned the proper way to do something, but they did it out of a genuine desire to see us learn how to be successful.
Unfortunately, the teaching moment appears to be a lost art in State Patrol management. I’ve witnessed too many investigatory hearing convened for insignificant reasons to believe anything else. In years past, a good supervisor would take a person to the side, and discuss an issue with them. It might have been an after-action review or incident critique, or it may have been a “What if” exercise reviewing potential outcomes based on differing variables. Now it seems that everything needs to be done through a formal investigation. Management overreacts, and the employees pay the price.
This propensity to overreact by management takes considerable time away from routine patrol, but that isn’t the biggest problem it creates. It develops fear in the subordinates. Fear of failure, fear of receiving a complaint, and ultimately fear of making a decision. If you ask officers involved in high risk situations why they didn’t use more justified force, they often respond that they were thinking about what might happen to them after the incident was over. We teach them to respond to the situation with the appropriate level of force, but their attention was focused on the ensuing personal investigation more than on the issue at hand.
How do we develop this culture of fear? It starts with second-guessing and micromanaging. Show me a micromanager, and I will show you a person who probably has questionable judgment at best. As humans, we tend to project our personal attributes onto the people around us, and we interpret their purpose through our frame of reference. If we aren’t trustworthy, we perceive others as the same, and the lack of trust leads to micromanaging. Philosopher Sam Keen wrote about this phenomenon in Faces of the Enemy (HarperCollins, 1991), describing our tendency to project our own attributes on others around us. If the attributes are negative, it is a natural response to establish an “Us versus Them” environment, creating a barrier to insulate a person from their own shortcomings. Unfortunately, when this attitude permeates a supervisory relationship, the authority held by the supervisor becomes detrimental to building a positive relationship and encourage communication and dialogue. Micromanagement thrives in this environment.
Nothing kills morale faster than micromanaging. By constantly looking over the shoulder of a subordinate, management sends a clear message that the employee’s judgment is suspect at best, and tells the employee that they aren’t qualified or capable of making a good decision. The real irony with micromanaging is that when the supervisor believes an employee isn’t trustworthy, micromanaging delivers that opinion to the employee. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the employee regresses under the burden of the micromanaging.
Micromanaging can be devastating to the development of a new employee. If the employee is fresh out of the Academy, the latitude to make decisions allows the employee to develop and flourish. In life, many more lessons are learned from failure than from success. At the last In-service, we each took a final exam before we left. I can’t remember the questions I got right, but I know exactly which one I got wrong, and I can explain why it was wrong. (And I will confess that I should have read it twice, but that’s part of the continual learning experience too.) That one stuck, and will be with me long after the other questions have faded. Errors and failures not only provide knowledge, but also motivation to do better the next time.
Micromanaging does have a place, but only with limited applications. If an employee has a distinct identifiable deficiency, micromanaging might be necessary to correct the deficiency. However, the micromanaging should end when the employee demonstrated increased competence. Competence might be less than proficiency, but the employer should be able to know that the employee understands the basics.
Management can’t be everywhere. Even the tools of automation including MDC archives, GPS or CAD database (if it ever comes online) can’t account for all situations. Good supervisors develop a rapport with their work units, creating an atmosphere of trust and thereby encouraging employees to bring concerns to management so they can be addressed in a positive format. The goal within the Patrol should be the same as our goal for the public, to generate voluntary compliance. Sometimes it takes a citation, but many times a warning is enough to correct the behavior.
We have many experienced supervisors in our ranks. It’s time for the Patrol to let them return to teaching through positive reinforcement, rather than teaching through fear. It will be an investment that will pay dividends for years.
In 2004, I wrote the article above. Almost 14 years later, our management is still doing investigations over matters that could be dealt with much more effectively by doing after action critiques. The difference is that in an after action critique, we encourage the free exchange of dialogue, and we try to improve our processes and performance in future events.
Last year, I saw Dr. Kevin Gilmartin speak. It is the second time that I have had the privilege of seeing him. He wrote the book Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement (https://www.amazon.com/Emotional-survival-law-enforcement-officers/dp/0971725403) and he holds seminars around the country trying to help officers deal with the horrors we see everyday, along with the buildup of toxic waste on our memories.
He talked about the difference between police officers and firefighters. To the general public, they think we are just like EMS, but we know differently. Firefighters respond to incidents in a group. We usually arrive alone. Another difference is that we aren’t nearly as good as using ICS. We think that we can run the whole show, while EMS knows that the branch concept needs to occur early in the incident.
Finally, once the incident is over, the firefighters gather around the table, get something to eat and critique their response. They are a family, and they literally do a family dinner. While the truth may hurt, it helps them improve their next response.
Police are the opposite. If we did a tactical error and managed to survive, the first thing we do is look around to make sure that no one saw it, and we never say another word about it. We watch others after us make the same mistake, and still we keep silent rather than help solve the problem.
Firefighters learn as a group, while law enforcement wants to learn individually. Learning as a group is always better, but the law enforcement culture resists. Law enforcement has more risk and exposure to line of duty deaths, but firefighting is much more dangerous per incident. They have less incidents, and they work as a team.
Since 2010, firefighters have averaged about 75 death per year, while law enforcement has averaged over 150 deaths per year. We push the Below 100 Initiative, but we continue to do it without making the changes to our culture. There are many articles about the Below 100 Initiative. Here is one source (https://www.policeone.com/Officer-Safety/articles/4450246-Below-100-The-choices-we-make-often-make-us).
Without trying to sound braggadocios, I used to be a State Patrol Sergeant, from 1996 to 2002. During that time, I attended the Northwestern University School of Police Staff and Command (SPSC – 118th Session). Northwestern isn’t like most LE classes, where you get a certificate of attendance. They give actual grades and college credits. My session included sergeants Darren Price, Dan Lonsdorf and Brett Heino, among the 42 member class.
I completed the program with a 4.0 GPA, one of only five in my class to do so, and future Majors Price and Lonsdorf were not among the five of us who received that letter. One of the lessons that stuck with me was that officers will treat the public the way that supervisors treat their officers. If the supervisor is an autocrat, their employees will adopt that persona. If the supervisor doesn’t trust their subordinates, eventually the officers will quit trusting themselves and each other. When that happens, officers get injured or killed.
When I raise this issue to management, and I do quite often, no one ever seems to be the source. They all infer that someone higher in the chain of command is the problem. At some point, they need to recognize and own the problem, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.More than 13 years have passed since I wrote the first article, and nothing seems to have changed.