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Building A Better Team

For many years as a sergeant, a lieutenant, and a captain in a large police department, Bob struggled under a chief who considered himself to be a modern, enlightened leader. The chief felt that human relations techniques, along with large dollops of nurturing and forgiveness, would bring about a happy, productive department. The hope was that if employees felt included and trusted they would be loyal and the work would take care of itself.

For a while, the approach worked—for about 80 percent of the department. The other 20 percent, who were spread over all layers of the organization, had their own agendas. With little accountability and follow-through from the top, the department became a loose collection of about 100 not-so-happy freelancers. Civilian personnel did their best to trail behind the sworn members, cleaning up the paperwork as best they could. Consensus—or the appearance of consensus—was easily obtained at staff meetings, as the staff knew there would be no follow-through on any agreements or decisions.

By the time Bob took over as chief of the department, it was in poor shape. At the first team-building retreat, Bob took the floor and in matter-of-fact, friendly tones, said: “This train is going in a new direction. Over the coming months, I will try to clarify this new direction. In time, I’ll expect every last person to be on board. Those who fail to get on board will be asked to leave.”

In this real-life case of picking up the command baton after a long spate of management gone wrong, Bob knew that he had an accountability gap. His employees were accustomed to being on their own with no one to report to or answer to. He set out to bridge that gap through commonsense management, strong leadership skills, clear standards, and accurate evaluations. And though some workers were let go in the process, the entire organization benefited from the changes.

COMMON SENSE. The first change that Bob made was to view his problem through a lens of common sense rather than leadership theory. The theories that the previous management had relied on were rooted in the assumption that all employees are inherently cooperative and well intentioned. While this view is useful as a general rule and as a point of departure, a manager must also have a policy for dealing with unmotivated and uncooperative employees. Bob knew that he must have a way to handle problem employees. He went on the assumption that they were adults who had made conscious decisions to behave as they did. Bob was determined to make them accountable for their actions and their performance.

LEADERSHIP. In surveys of thousands of participants in the author’s accountability workshops, more than 90 percent of the supervisors and managers surveyed admitted that they did little or nothing about problem employees, even when those employees exhibited dangerous behavior.

Some managers said that they avoided taking action against problem employees because their organization blamed the manager if an employee was fired, considering it a leadership failure.

Good managers and good organizations know that the opposite is true: It is a failure of leadership to avoid dealing with a problem employee. Bob knew that. He understood that allowing one employee to shirk responsibility would have a ripple effect on the entire workplace, in terms of both morale and workload. Doing nothing could also reflect negatively on Bob. So when constructive problem- solving efforts failed, he knew that the best thing to do was to sever the relationship.

Bob knew that, contrary to some leadership theories, firing a disruptive nonperformer could be a sign of enlightened leadership rather than a failure if the firing helped the overall performance of the department. This was especially true in Bob’s world of law enforcement, where incompetence could result in loss of life. Bob not only acted in this way, but he also required his subordinate managers and supervisors to follow his lead. This new emphasis on performance represented a crucial cultural shift.

CLEAR STANDARDS. Bob’s first step after developing and announcing his new leadership direction was to work with his supervisory staff to develop clear performance standards and policies that were reasonable and mission-critical.

As a consultant, the author helped the management and supervisory team through the process of developing performance standards for all agency positions. It was a time-consuming process, but it was necessary to achieve a consistent view of the kind of service for which each member was to be made accountable.

Much of the work was accomplished in three days of hard work for supervisors and managers. When consensus could not be reached among the staff, Bob made the decision. Knowing that the performance standards would become the department’s yardstick for a new consistency and accountability, Bob was present for every decision.

Once the management team had a common view of the work required, consistency among supervisors and managers in directing and evaluating employees was possible. This step proved to be an indispensable part of the process. If staff had not passed through the ritual of jointly developing performance standards, the chief’s vision would not have translated in any consistent way to front-line supervisors and officers.

EVALUATIONS. In the past, supervisors had claimed that when efforts to turn around a problem employee failed, their hands were tied because they received no support from their superiors. Eventually, supervisors gave up trying to rehabilitate poor performers and the management staff allowed this lapse.

Bob did not want this to happen, so he established a meaningful and credible evaluation system. Bob used the new performance standards to build meaningful, performance- based evaluation tools. He threw away the personality-based evaluations and abolished the longstanding practice of averaging performance. For example, it was common to give an employee an overall “satisfactory” rating by bestowing an excellent performance in one job element to offset dismal performance in another.

Under the old chief, problem employees usually received glowing evaluations. This practice made the evaluation system meaningless to most employees. Similarly, supervisors who gave glowing evaluations to problem employees usually received glowing evaluations from the managers above them. This result clearly signaled that the primary job of supervisors was employee relations rather than employee performance.

Bob wanted to break that mind-set. To make evaluations important and meaningful again, he decided that he would randomly audit a few evaluations every year. If a supervisor’s evaluation of an officer does not jibe with the chief’s evaluation of the employee, that manager is taken to task.

Managers are offered additional training in evaluations if it is deemed necessary; afterward, they are held accountable for turning out candid, accurate evaluations of persons reporting to them. Where employee performance deficiencies are noted, supervisors are required to routinely take corrective action or face dismissal or demotion themselves.

Though many employees saw this new policy as harsh, Bob knew that accountability was paramount and that the job of law enforcement was too critical to support nonperformers. The tradition of grossly inflated evaluations faded away.

Anyone who did not meet the new standards was counseled and given a chance to improve. They were disciplined if they did not show improvement. After disciplinary steps were exhausted, poor performers were eventually terminated.

Several employees appealed their terminations, and some cases were litigated in superior court. But thanks to the use of reasonable standards and the firm-but-fair application of due process, the department won the cases. In the ranks, heartache and anger over the terminations of good friends who were poor officers was soon replaced by a solid sense of organizational competence and pride.

The accountability gap that Bob faced exists in most American organizations. Once acknowledged, the gap can be bridged, but not without some patience, persistence, and courage.

Top executives must show employees, who have often seen many false starts, that this change toward reasonable accountability is real. In addition, managers accustomed to developing consensus before making broad organizational change may have to adjust to the lonely chore of assertively taking their teams toward greater accountability without buy-in from all team members.

At this writing, Bob’s department enjoys a solid reputation for good performance. Applicants who know of the high standards and stability of the organization are eager to join up, bolstering recruitment efforts. Those who demonstrate a commitment to hard work and supporting others in their efforts are recognized and promoted. A new tradition of getting the work done and getting it done right has been established.

Dave Hudson is the owner and director of Marin Consulting Associates in St. Helena, California. The firm provides consulting and training services to clients in government and industry, placing emphasis on issues of workplace accountability. Hudson has served as director of organization development for Kaiser Permanente and the U.S.D.A. Forest service.