The Thick Blue Wall, Part 2 - Leadership -

The Thick Blue Wall, Part 2

How the brass busts trust



Valerie Van Brocklin | Friday, August 12, 2011

There’s a lot of research, writing, talk and training about trust between police and citizens, especially in light of community policing. But what about trust within police organizations between the brass and officers?

Last month in The Thick Blue Wall: When ‘Us v. Them’ Exists in the Ranks we looked at some real life examples of problems that can arise when the brass and officers don’t trust each other. At the end of that article, I said we’d discuss how to build trust this month. After more research, I realize we might be better served by first looking at the warning signs that trust is lacking in an organization along with what the brass does to bust trust.
Trust Is a Must
Trust is an essential human value. Psychologists claim that trust is so important to human relationships that it influences everything a person thinks, feels, says and does.

Trust flows from the top. If the brass is unpredictable, unfair, reactive or otherwise lacking in integrity, officers won’t trust what’s said and will behave accordingly.

Trust carries with it the fundamental notion that you have each other’s best interests at heart. It’s the foundation for effective supervisor-subordinate relationships. Those relationships are a cornerstone of high-performing organizations.

In his essay Trust: The Key to Combat Leadership (2007), featured in the book Leadership Lessons from West Point, P.J. Sweeney reported that trust is even more important in military and paramilitary organizations including police departments.

We know this. But how do we know if trust is an issue in our organization? How do departments get ensnarled in mistrust? Most important, how do we build trust and regain it when it’s been lost?

Trust Test
In her article Building Trust in the Workplace, Amy Lyman, founder of Great Place to Work Institute asserts that trust is found in three workplace characteristics:

       1. Credibility
       2. Respect
       3. Fairness

Put your department to Lyman’s test:

  • Credibility: Are communications in your agency open and accessible? Is vision carried out with integrity and consistency?
  • Respect: Are officers involved in relevant decisions? Is professional development supported and appreciated?
  • Fairness: Does everyone receive balanced treatment in recognition, rewards, promotions and discipline?
  • Pride: Do officers take pride in individual and group contributions?
  • Camaraderie: Is there a sense of family or team?

How do you determine if your organization passes the trust test? Ask officers the above questions. Ask them also for specific examples of what is and isn’t working and for suggestions on how to build trust where it’s lacking.

Development Dimensions International (DDI), a talent management consultant that works with countless organizations around the world, says warning signs that trust may be lacking include:

  • An active, inaccurate grapevine;
  • Elaborate approval processes;
  • Low initiative;
  • High turnover;
  • High fear factor amongst employees;
  • Turf wars; and
  • Defensiveness.

Is your police agency flashing with mistrust warning signs?

Basic Beliefs About People
Trust, and its lack, can begin with our basic beliefs about people. Douglas McGregor advanced a theory about trust and leaders’ beliefs in his book The Human Side of Enterprise. He discussed Theory X and Y philosophies.

Theory X leaders don’t trust people. They believe people are lazy and that employees need to be prodded, pushed and controlled to ensure they do their job. They always tell employees what to do.

If the brass are Theory X leaders, officers won’t feel trusted. Mistrust breeds mistrust. It’s hard to trust people who don’t trust us. Later we’ll look at how to be a Theory Y leader who inspires trust.

Trust Busters
Some ways management can break trust are obvious; some less so. In an excellent online article, Susan Heathfield offers a number of ways that leaders destroy trust.

Lie, by commission or omission. Omitting important truths is no better than telling falsehoods. Both these involve attempts to deceive.  A Yiddish proverb says, “A half-truth is a whole lie.” I would argue that a lie by omission is worse because it’s harder to detect.

Be a hypocrite. Words are easy. You’ll be judged by your actions. Talk trust, empowerment, participation and then make unilateral decisions and micromanage people and you’ll lose credibility. A gap between words and actions is hypocritical. No one trusts a phony.

Fail to deliver. Don’t promise what you can’t or don’t intend to deliver. You may be well-intentioned, wishing to reassure or give hope. But that will only be temporary whereas the loss of trust can be forever. I learned as a prosecutor trying child abuse cases never to make promises to kids I couldn’t guarantee.


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Valerie Van BrocklinValerie Van Brocklin is an internationally sought speaker, trainer and author who combines a dynamic presentation style with years of experience as a state and federal prosecutor.


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