How police leaders can leverage generational traits to strengthen team communication By:

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“This generation of young cops doesn’t know how to talk to people.”

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Everyone says it about the Zs. I have heard and read countless comments regarding an “inability” to communicate from departmental trainers, police recruiters, oral board assessors and officers across the nation in online communities.

As a “millennial” or Gen Y quickly approaching 40, I have been considering how we, as veteran police peers, trainers and supervisors, may adapt our approach to get our juniors up to speed.

I recalled my field training generation and how it was frequently socialized to build in social contacts, bar checks and other types of interactions to force these face-to-face dialogues. While these are valid tools, understanding the dynamics and motivators of our varied workforce is key to creating ideal communication and collaboration.

Communicating between generations is not a new challenge

It’s not just people saying Gen Z can’t communicate. The Gen Xers said it about Millennials. The Boomers said it about the Xers and so on.

Generational differences emerge as trends based on the environments they grew up in — with varied societal and technological landscapes. As long as the world keeps changing, generations will keep changing as well.

Generational communication dynamics are increasingly relevant in all work industries. “The workplace is now more age-diverse than ever before with five generations—Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z—working side-by-side” (1).

Rather than cross our arms or roll our eyes (physically or in emojis), we ought to seek intel to develop constructive efforts and strategies to enhance team cohesion and job performance.

Dynamics of the youngest generation of cops: The Gen Zs

When we consider job performance for police work specifically, there is perhaps no clearer place to look than academy and field training periods. The newest/youngest batch of recruit and student officers are categorized as being deficient in having in-person or face-to-face communications. In fact, data says “65% of Generation Z prefer to communicate online more often than in person” (3).

However, does this mean “they can’t talk to people?” Looking deeper, we find that this is an oversimplification. While some stereotype the Zs as having limited “people skills,” they are categorized by psychologists as being communicative, open and collaborative. Due to their roots in technology-based interactions, they are “the first generation to truly exist without knowledge of what it’s like to grow up without digital technology” (2).

Zs had instant access to every perspective and point of view, making them open to ideas and styles. This could serve as a basis to build open-mindedness and the right environment to connect with others, especially within the workplace. Further, they are the most aware of feelings and how to communicate them (2). These characteristics could infer a greater opportunity to bridge and build understanding and relationships on a more emotional or personal level, as well as receive direction from supervisors receptively.

Despite their preferences to communicate electronically at home, “in professional settings … the best way to communicate with Generation Z employees is through face-to-face communication” (6). This is impactful for all police professionals to recognize.

If we are operating on the stereotype that younger generations don’t desire in-person contact, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We won’t be intentional about giving and seeking conversations, and both parties will feel (and be) at a loss. Knowing that the Zs prefer in-person communication at work arms us with how to build an effective strategy for leadership and coaching.

What about the other generations? Have a seat and find out

Boomers are socialized as preferring in-person or phone conversations. Millennials may lean toward instant messaging or texts, while Gen Xers prefer direct emails (3). Trend-based information like this can be useful to consider, but, like all intel, it needs to be validated and verified. The best way to do this is to ask the individual, note their apparent preferred communication and monitor how your different modes of relaying information are received.

Ultimately, although it can be helpful to know if a co-worker, boss or subordinate prefers texts over phone calls, in-person meetings and conversations should be a daily routine and goal. Sitting down with someone or taking a few moments car-to-car can signal “positive traits like commitment, even if we’re just sitting there” (4). In addition, we can recognize times when tone was unassigned or misunderstood in written language, especially when it’s brief. This can be prevented significantly through in-person engagements with clear “mannerisms, tone of voice and energy” (4).

Such a varied, intentional approach to communicating may aid the differing traits of the generations. Millennials are categorized as inclusive and growth-oriented. Gen Xers are characteristically balanced, creative and flexible. Boomers are known to be competitive, self-assured and goal-oriented (2). These can all be seen as meaningful virtues, not only individually, but certainly within a team. Setting time and effort into connecting with any one of these descriptions can certainly be seen as a good thing when it comes to anything from problem-solving to career development.

Lastly, when it comes to the power of peer support and the necessity for checking in with those we work with in first responder industries, there is no replacement for in-person connection. Without seeing someone, sharing space and feeling their response, energy and tone, it is difficult to get a true gauge of how they are doing. This theme is a requisite for police work, for which everyone is responsible from recruits to top agency executives.

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Themes to bridge connection

  • Intentionality: Benjamin Franklin said it best: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” We will fall flat without the intention to have conversations and build cohesion. For supervisors, this means scheduling regular touch-bases outside of biannual reviews or evaluations. For junior officers, it may take initiative for you to ask for routine meetings. You can do it with a courteous tone, relaying your desire to grow, seek challenges and reduce blind spots.
  • Vary your approach: Hit it from all angles! It might even mean asking your people how they like to communicate. If an officer says he prefers texts, this doesn’t mean you solely utilize that method, but you may consider using it when you have the option.
  • Curiosity: By being curious, we can expand the scope of conversation and how developed the responses we hear are. In 21st Century Police Leadership and other similar courses, the concept of FLPPN conversations is promoted. FLPPN stands for frequent, low risk, personal, positive, neutral (5). Building these themes in workplace interactions allows you to build relationships more readily.
  • Patience: Anything new takes time. It will take time to adjust your tendencies and allow others around you to do the same. Beyond that adaptation, keeping patience as a theme for communication is a key to success. Oftentimes in police work, we don’t have time to adapt communication — timeliness in critical situations is the driver. However, relationship-building is about the long game. We can remind ourselves of how circling back, taking multiple bites at the apple and being consistent will help us in the marathon-like endeavor.

Putting it all together

  1. Utilize a multi-prong approach: Knowing that your officers will have different communicative styles and strengths, vary your methods and hit them from different angles.

    Example: New directive came down the pipe, requiring data entry on proactive stops. First, brief the group in roll call/briefing. This allows you to curtail your tone, read the room and truly explain the “why.” Present some common anticipated questions and go through the directive or policy with a clear explanation. Open it up for questions and discussion. This allows you to modulate your approach and toggle to build understanding and buy-in. Follow up with an email with the directive/policy update and your bullet points discussed in the briefing. Invite questions and concerns.

    Extra credit: Account for anyone who was missing in roll call. Make sure to catch them for a few minutes in person (or by phone at a minimum) so everyone is on the same page.

  2. Be transparent: I was supervising an officer who had his guard up due to an internal investigation he had been navigating before our assignment together. We had good rapport and history before my official supervision, and my main goal was to build trust and team collaboration between us.

    By sitting down with him and explaining this goal, addressing the elephant in the room, and relaying my respect and esteem in his character and abilities, we were able to get some good footing in the beginning. I relayed that I wanted to talk to him regularly to see how I could best show up, support him and the crew, and my sincere belief that the more transparent we were with each other, the more successful our unit would be.

    Nothing of significance can occur overnight, but by having these straightforward conversations over time, he recognized my check-ins were to offer support and connection, not to micromanage. The regularity shifted and it became commonplace for him to reach out to me preemptively, use me as a sounding board and we continued to build solutions off one another.

  3. Build a culture of communicative mentorship: As a commander or mid-level manager, my supervision spans more people than I can reasonably touch with frequency. However, by investing time and care with my sergeants, I can overtly and subtly demonstrate this and allow that culture to trickle down to officers.

    Consider asking your officers how their subordinates like to be communicated with. It will force them to pause and consider their approaches. Pick their brains and seek feedback. Relay what your approaches are and ask where they can be improved.

    Offer more prompts that build mentorship. Ask the question, “Who’s your replacement?” With the youth in our profession nationally, this is a relevant concept. By focusing and recognizing what we are doing to train our successors, we are integrating leadership development opportunities.

    Further, suggest, invite and challenge your people to attend more leadership training. Any leadership courses of value will center on communication skills and dynamics, which include discussions of emotional intelligence, communication and culture. I recently attended a 21st Century Police Leadership course (derived from Westpoint Leadership), which was based exactly on those main categories.

    In addition to traditional supervisory roles, these themes and sub-cultures can be elevated in ancillary duties, such as peer support, defensive tactics, range staff, etc. By encouraging expansive, inclusive modes of communication with all teams, units and peer groups, officers will continue to develop themselves and those working around them. A rising tide raises all ships — and you can be the catalyst to start, set or further those positive trends!

  4. Remember that communication is about building trust: What makes someone decide to air a problem or grievance or keep silent? What determines if someone asks a “dumb question” or not? What prompts someone to throw an idea out in a meeting or grit their teeth and swallow it? What is the difference-maker when it comes to sharing there are issues at home, influencing work performance?

    The answer to all of these scenarios is trust and a sense of safety, whether it’s psychological or emotional security. Sharing an idea, question, concern, frustration or appreciation is grounded in seeking connection. The environment has to be perceived as safe to do so. An unfit environment will be met with silence. A perceived dismissal, discarding or invalidating of what is shared will shut doors … potentially forever. A common leadership adage is that trust is gained in drops and lost in buckets. Keeping this in mind will help generate a healthy, constructive atmosphere for information sharing and functional communication.

    As a younger officer, I had aired some concerns to a union representative about a particular administrator. I poured out my heart and concerns for the health of the agency, hoping to get some support in the thoughts that were circling my head and those of many of my peers. Sometime later, I learned the rep was not only close with that administrator, spending time off together, but I had evidence of some back-channeling. Not only did it shatter my confidence in our connection and relationship, but that shaky dynamic that had been revealed to me made my skin crawl, recognizing how susceptible it had potentially made me and my career.

    If our character is strong and our actions reflect those virtues, then time, effort and care will prime our leadership ability. Even if it’s slow and steady. After all, that’s what wins the race.

Conclusion

Rather than focusing on differences, as responsible team members of all ranks and experience levels, we need to seek understanding to build a foundation of cohesion and commonality. Although recognizing variability in the individuals we work with can inform helpful tools, dedicating time and space for our team is essential for organizational health and synchronicity.

As we build upon this for optimal team efficacy, we can recognize that this potential expands far beyond our police co-workers and into the community. Ultimately, adaptable communication skills and intentions will aid us not just within the walls of our agencies, but in all the work we do with the many generations (five to six and counting!) that we interact with and serve daily.

References

  1. Purdue Global. “Generational Differences in the Workplace.” Purdue Global, https://www.purdueglobal.edu/education-partnerships/generational-workforce-differences-infographic/.
  2. Johns Hopkins. “The Changing Generational Values.” Imagine Johns Hopkins, 17 Nov. 2022, https://imagine.jhu.edu/blog/2022/11/17/the-changing-generational-values/.
  3. Notre Dame of Maryland University. “The Evolution of Communication Across Generations.” Notre Dame of Maryland University, https://online.ndm.edu/news/communication/evolution-of-communication/.
  4. Harvard Business Review. “Face-to-Face Time with Your Employees Still Matters.” Harvard Business Review, May 2023, https://hbr.org/2023/05/face-to-face-time-with-your-employees-still-matters.
  5. Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. “21st Century Police Leadership.”
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