FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
A common question I get in my leadership training is, “How do I handle the bad-attitude officer?”
Through follow-up discussions, it’s clear that these folks are talking about officers beyond the reach of even the best leadership and with whom they’ve tried everything. Just as important, they’re talking about officers who are scorned not just by supervisors but also by their fellow officers and staff.
So, let’s be clear who we mean by the bad-attitude officer. We’re not talking about the crusty patrol sergeant (or FTO, etc.) who simply has a curmudgeonly take on the world and may take some persuading or goading before they’ll try something new.
And we’re not talking about plenty of simply annoying habits that people we work with (and we ourselves) may have. To name just a few:
- Bad hygiene;
- Talking too loud, soft, high-pitched or nasally;
- Not being able to see the forest for the trees;
- Not being able to take a hint;
- Being overly sensitive;
- Being too needy;
- Fawning over everyone;
- Being clueless to subtle social mores;
- Having too high an opinion of themselves;
- Being indecisive;
- Over-compensating; and
These aren’t what I’m talking about. Personality quirks and irritations serve a purpose. They teach us tolerance.
Bad attitude officers are a galaxy beyond annoying. They’re:
- The source of negative gossip, whining and back biting;
- The naysayer of any endeavor but offer no alternatives; and
- Toxic poison.
They can be as bad as bullies. Their sighing, harrumphing, eye rolling, tsk-ing, teeth sucking, lip pursing, no-nodding, shrugging, nay-saying, arms across chest or hands-on-hips posturing can suffocate and suppress everyone. They can suck all the air out of a room and the life out of an organization.
Forget Changing the Attitude
One of the reasons I initially struggled with the question of how to handle the bad-attitude officer is that I assumed the answer was to change their attitude.
There are limited ways to change a person’s attitude. Psychotherapy can take years to accomplish even slight changes in attitude. Religious conversions or near death experiences are usually quicker but equally outside my and most police supervisors’ expertise or control.
I believe good leaders can also change attitudes. But people who change as a result of therapy, religion, a near-death experience or good leadership (including their own) are seeking or open to change. One of the most pernicious traits of the bad-attitude officer is their “give-a-sh*tter” is broke.
If these people kept their toxic attitudes to themselves, we wouldn’t care. But they negatively impact others with their behavior—with what they say and do and how they say and do it.
Focus on the Behavior
Forget attitude and focus on behavior. Don’t even use the word attitude in discussions or documentation. For one thing, attitude is a provocative word that invites denials that are hard to rebut because it’s subjective.
There’s another reason to focus on behavior. Courts can interpret “attitude problems” as mere differences of opinion or personality conflicts.
(That’s as far as I’m going into the legal realm. This article isn’t intended as legal advice. It’s intended to provide some practical, how-to tips. If those tips also result in documentation that supports a department legally disposing of this hazardous material, that’s a side effect.)
Describing the Behavior
Police are experts in focusing on non-verbal as well as verbal cues and articulating them in a variety of situations—to establish reasonable suspicion or probable cause, to support a use of force, etc. Let’s put that expertise to work.
Get specific. First, identify the problem. Is it:
- Nay saying
- Credit grabbing
- A combination
- Or something else?
Then describe the officer’s verbal behaviors that demonstrate the problem. Include:
- Specific statements;
- Whether the statements were loud, muttered, directed to no one specifically or directed to a specific person; and
- The tone.
Non-verbal behaviors include:
- Eye rolling
- Arms folded across chest
- Negative head shakes
- Making distracting noises
- Walking away
Again, I’m not talking about mild annoyances. Some people wear a scowl as their natural demeanor. We’re not trying to turn everybody into a cheery Wal-Mart greeter or vapid happy face. But we do need to think, talk and write in terms of specific, measurable behaviors.
Make the Case for Behavior Change
Before you address the Bad Attitude Officer, you need to prepare the case for why his or her behavior must change. Answer the following:
What is the impact of the officer’s behavior?
- How does it affect you, other officers, staff or citizens?
- Include responses—verbal and nonverbal—of others.
- What are reasons the department expects officers to act in ways other than the way this officer acts?
- How is the officer’s behavior at odds with the department’s mission and core values?
Address the Behavior
Now you’re ready to meet with the bad-attitude officer. In his article, “Attitude Adjustments,” Dick Grote recommends how to begin and follow through, but you can tailor this model for the individual officer.
Consider telling the officer you have a problem and need her help. Then go through her behaviors, their impact and the reasons they must change. You can acknowledge that you and others may be misinterpreting the officer’s behaviors. That still means the officer has a problem with how people perceive her that must be addressed.
Ask the officer for help in solving the problem. Listen. Is the officer aware of what she’s doing? Are there explanations (divorce, problems with kids, financial pressures, alcohol or drug abuse) for the officer’s behavior?
If you get useful responses—great. That’s probably all you’ll need to do with this officer, except for acknowledging improvement and providing occasional reminders if she backslides. Plenty of people aren’t insightful about how others regard them but still care about being liked and respected.
But if this is the bad-attitude officer whose “give a sh*tter” is broke, you’ll likely get denial, rationalization, projection or any other responsibility escaping tactics. Wrap the meeting up with something like, “Good. I’m glad you think this needn’t be a problem. We’ll meet again in a week to make sure it’s been solved.”
In the next meeting, acknowledge any behavior changes for the better. List any examples of inappropriate behaviors that have occurred. Tell the officer specifically what kind of behavior is required—cooperative, helpful, respectful—and enlist the officer in coming up with specific examples of how she might demonstrate such behaviors.
Follow up with additional meetings, as needed, until you get acceptable performance—or not.
Between these meetings, also consider:
- Pulling the officer aside immediately after the behavior happens and providing brief, specific, situational counseling.
- Asking a trusted, respected peer to counsel the person (if the bad-attitude officer has any peer he or she will listen to).
Is Your Performance Evaluation a Tool?
Does your department’s performance evaluation address the behaviors of the bad-attitude officer? If not, it should be changed so it does. Dick Grote also has a good suggestion for how to use the performance evaluation.
Complete the part of the performance evaluation that addresses the bad-attitude officer’s unacceptable behaviors. The officer we’ve described should get the lowest rating in these areas.
In one of the follow-up meetings necessitated by the bad-attitude officer not having changed his behaviors, give him this performance evaluation and say,
“I know it’s not time for your performance evaluation, but if it were, this is what I’d say.”
Give the officer time to read it and tell him, “Unless there’s significant and sustained change in your interactions with others along the lines we’ve discussed, this is what you can expect at evaluation time. I wanted you to see this so there won’t be any surprises.” If the officer doesn’t change, you’ve documented the reasons his toxicity must be removed.
In the End
What we can’t do is nothing. Bad-attitude officers are a bane. We owe it to the majority of officers who shiningly protect and serve and consider policing a sacred trust that they not have to carry bad attitude officers on their backs along with the other burdens they nobly bear.