Investing in LeadershipBuilding Commitment & Buy-In from the FrontlineBy Paul Rinkoff, PhD, Inspector – Toronto Police ServiceImplementing key policy decisions, achieving corporate goals, and leading change is a daily demand for the leaders of progressive police organizations. Notwithstanding, with so much emphasis being placed on the accomplishments of senior leaders, we find that the pivotal leadership roles and contributions of frontline supervisors, namely staff sergeants and sergeants, are often overlooked.When disinvestment in frontline leadership escalates, routine and critical operational plans are more likely to fail. The reason is that frontline leaders, who are counted on to oversee operations at the ground level, find themselves ill-equipped to lead under pressure and without proper decision-making tools. The importance and impact of skilled frontline leadership become even more crucial when corporate decisions are viewed as unpopular or controversial, or when emerging events that require organized and strategic policing are deemed uncertain, dangerous, or urgent.A recent academic study1highlights the important role of frontline supervisors who function as a facilitating layer of command and management in police organizations. The study demonstrates that frontline supervisors are able to achieve critical commitment and buy-in from officers in challenging and demanding situations by engaging regularly in specific leadership activities and by blending distinct leadership approaches to achieve the intended results. This article adapts and summarizes these leadership activities and approaches for policing professionals with the goal of redirecting leadership investment to high-priority and exposed areas of police organizations, specifically the frontline.Why is Achieving Commitment and Buy-In from the Frontline a Challenge? First, it’s not just a policing problem! In all areas of government, when attempting to roll out key policy decisions and initiatives, leaders often find themselves struggling to achieve appropriate levels of commitment and buy-in from frontline workers. Specific to policing, we often observe a markedly fierce resistance at the frontline to new or perceived controversial policies and/or unwelcomed top-down influence, for instance, from leaders who are perceived to be “outsiders” or “too political,” or have been around for “too long” or “not long enough!” Why are these impediments particularly dense in the field of policing?One explanation relies on the impact of internal and external occupational factors, which are thought to have an influence on the decision-making processes of police officers. For instance, the unique authoritative structure of a police organization – one that is hierarchical, centralized, and shares a common frame of reference, language, and assumptions – envelops a thick “police culture:” a collection of informal norms and values shared by police officers and the broader policing collective. These norms and values promote, socialize, and justify the prevailing attitudes of officers, which at times can be distrustful or suspicious of leadership decisions and objectives. Clearly, these institutional processes are not ideal for senior leaders, who rely on unwavering compliance from the frontline during difficult, distressed, and uncertain times. Research shows, however, staff sergeants and sergeants situated at the frontline are able to quell some of the resistance displayed by officers by acting as a facilitating layer and communicator between senior leadership and the street-level implementer (our frontline officers). This important leadership contribution of staff sergeants and sergeants is the key to achieving commitment and buy-in when and where it counts.Why is the Frontline Tough to Lead? Frontline police work is unique and challenging to lead and supervise. The tasks assigned to officers are often complex, ambiguous, and difficult to assess for correctness. To make matters worse, officers often find themselves juggling conflicting or contradictory duties or find themselves in subjective, self-initiated, or discretionary situations. All of these supervisory challenges make it difficult to provide specific guidance or direction to officers on how to improve themselves.WHEN FRONTLINE SUPERVISORS EMPLOY A SUPPORTIVE LEADERSHIP APPROACH, LEVELS OF COMMITMENT AND BUY-IN FROM OFFICERS TOWARD KEY OBJECTIVES TREND PROPORTIONATELY TO THE AMOUNT OF ENCOURAGEMENT, MOTIVATION, AND REWARD THEY RECEIVE FROM LEADERS.Figure 1: Analytical model illustrating the leadership approaches and activities used by staff sergeants and sergeants to achieve greater commitment and buy-in from officers at the frontline.When attempting to gain compliance from officers, two additional challenges are posed to frontline leaders: the general low visibility of officer assignments and the large number of officers that are working relative to supervisors. Unsurprisingly, it is difficult for senior leaders to acquire consistent and reliable first-hand knowledge of the extent to which officers commit or buy into policies and decisions furnished from the top.Compounding the difficulties noted above are the interpersonal relationships that exist within police organizations – between officers, their supervisors, and senior leaders – relationships often defined by suspicion and cynicism stemming from past implementation failures and the potential for punishment when observed to be in contravention of a policy or law. Fortunately, empirical support shows that frontline leaders (Staff Sergeants and Sergeants) are able to leverage key leadership activities and approaches which have the effect of increasing the commitment and buy-in from officers during unpopular, controversial, and challenging times. The next section summarizes these leadership activities and approaches.Effective Leadership Activities and Approaches for Frontline Leaders To help inform our understanding of the effective leadership activities and approaches used by staff sergeants and sergeants to increase commitment and buy-in at the frontline, it is important to recognize two notions of influence: proximity and authority. By leveraging these two notions, frontline supervisors are able to button their formal rank and their own understanding of the organization’s cultural dynamics, and translate new policies and decisions into action, particularly at times of uncertainty or controversy.Empirical support for the following effective leadership activities used by frontline supervisors to achieve commitment and buy-in from officers includes: being present at service calls; auditing reports, recordings, and notes; planning local training sessions led by knowledge experts; encouraging, motivating, and supporting officers; rewarding officers for positive work; and disciplining and holding officers accountable when necessary. While some of these leadership activities may seem familiar, especially for veteran officers, it is the integration of these leadership activities with a blend of two influential and accepted leadership approaches – authoritative and supportive – that amasses greater commitment and buy-in from officers. The next section reveals how this works.How to Integrate Leadership Activities with Authoritative and Supportive Leadership Approaches When frontline supervisors employ a supportive leadership approach, levels of commitment and buy-in from officers toward key objectives trend proportionately to the amount of encouragement, motivation, and reward they receive from leaders. Staff Sergeants and Sergeants can modify the level of support that they provide to officers based on the complexity of the need, task, environment, and any anticipated obstacles. In the absence of direct supervision, the supportive approach is favoured since the decisions of officers continue to be influenced without explicit direction. When Staff Sergeants and Sergeants adopt a supportive leadership approach, they model the leadership activities of “encouraging,” “rewarding,” and “training” (see Figure 1). In addition, supportive leadership approaches have been found to advance community relations outside, and innovation inside of the workplace.It should be recognized, however, that a supportive leadership approach may be unsuited to achieving commitment and buy-in from officers in all policing situations, especially those that are perceived to be contentious. In these situations, an authoritative leadership approach may be more successful, i.e., adopting a rank-based model of supervisory influence that emphasizes governance and regulation over discretion and individual judgment. The authoritative leadership approach prioritizes accountability for one’s actions. Noticeably, however, this leadership approach can run the risk of reducing the community’s approval of policing activities if aggressive tactics are promoted or misused. Staff Sergeants and Sergeants who adopt an authoritative leadership approach model the leadership activities of “being present,” “disciplining,” and “auditing” (see Figure 1).Supportive and authoritative leadership approaches are not dueling or mutually exclusive and can be combined in effective ways by frontline leaders to increase levels of commitment and buy-in from officers in an occupational environment that is complex, contextual, and challenging to lead. Figure 1 illustrates the integration of these two leadership approaches with the six leadership activities summarized above and how these leadership approaches and activities can be used to achieve greater commitment and buy-in from officers at the frontline.Leadership at the Frontline – It’s an InvestmentIt is important for all levels of leadership in police organizations to acknowledge the conflux of environmental and cultural factors which often function to curtail or sabotage the implementation of key policy decisions, the achievement of corporate goals, or the prospect of meaningful change. In the same vein, this article serves to remind policing leadership that an officer’s experience and choice to commit and buy-in to leadership decisions are shaped by the distinctive influences that operate from within and outside of their occupational environment.To control for these influences, senior police leaders should aim their attention to the frontline of their organizations, continuing to recognize and leverage the critical leadership contributions of frontline supervisors, namely staff sergeants and sergeants. These frontline leaders are the communicators and the translators, and they dominate the change equation at challenging times when achieving the appropriate level of commitment and buy-in from officers is paramount and the key to operational success. All in all, when you invest in your frontline leaders, you are investing in leadership where it counts!1Rinkoff, Paul. (2021) Leadership Approaches in Law Enforcement: A Sergeant’s Methods of Achieving Compliance from the Frontline to Racial Profiling Policy. Journal of Community Safety and Well-Being: 6(1).Paul Rinkoff is an Inspector with the Toronto Police Service. He holds a PhD in Policy Studies and lectures in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Metropolitan Toronto University. Inspector Rinkoff can be contacted at paul.rinkoff@torontopolice.on.ca.
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