All executives occasionally have selected thoughts and perspectives they would like to share with the workforce but realistically lack an effective directive to do so. The institution of a non-official method of sharing thoughts with the workforce can be an invaluable asset and provide a voice where none may have existed previously. Notwithstanding a few reasonable safeguards to avoid future difficulties, an unofficial means of sharing your thoughts with your employees can be a helpful and satisfying method for the dissemination of certain types of information.
Background and concept
With few exceptions, our departments have policies that set the stage for behaviors and expectations, orders that make clear specific guidance in specific instances, training bulletins that are instructive as to various situations, personnel orders that outline transfers and promotions, notices that are informative regarding unofficial information, and sometimes even more categories of information. What is often missing, however, is a mechanism for the chief or sheriff to share their perspective with the personnel of their agency in an unofficial and non-binding manner — simply speaking, letting their folks know what is on their mind regarding noteworthy issues.
Now that I have everyone’s attention with respect to what a terrible idea this might appear to be, let me explain my rationale and also discuss the potential for various types of consequences that may flow from such a practice. First, the chief needs to be smart and have the ability to look “over the horizon” to identify potential consequences of sharing unofficial thoughts in written form with the entire workforce. Secondly, the chief needs to have a reasonable breadth of knowledge about liability and personnel law so as to avoid problematic legal potholes. Finally, the chief needs to know which turf can safely be traversed and which is best not to tread.
A wisely and carefully written document can be an indication of your leadership and professionalism.
Format and distribution
The first step is to create a format that is distinguishable from the agency’s official directives, and perhaps with a unique title such as Thoughts From the Top, My Perspective, View From the Corner Pocket or something similar that will set a somewhat informal conversational stage. It is essential that printed under your masthead is language such as: “An occasional non-official message from the chief that reflects [his or her] perspective at this particular time on the issue at hand. This is for information only and is not to be construed as suggesting or directing any course of action, nor does it represent an official position of the department or the city.”
The chief needs to not only solicit the perspective of wise legal counsel, but also have the wisdom and courage to occasionally ignore that advice! It is essential that executives not lose sight of the reality that attorneys are legal staff advisors and not decision makers, and that oftentimes (usually, in fact!) an attorney’s advice will be to say and write as little as necessary. The chief needs to listen closely, evaluate the thoughts of the legal advisor and weigh those thoughts against the potential advantage of an open and transparent discussion with the members of the organization. Although the document will make clear that the communiqué is non-official, it will still be used in any litigation where its contents might be helpful to one side or another in pursuing the outcome of a legal issue. A wisely and carefully written document can be potentially be of value by demonstrating traits such as informational balance, organizational awareness and information not previously considered. It can also be an indication of your leadership and professionalism.
For information — not ventilation!
Never forget the reality that haste is your enemy and time is your friend! At all costs, avoid the temptation to use this type of informational communiqué to strike out at something that is personally bothering you. Share your thoughts and your drafts with your staff and encourage them to be your watchdogs and not permit you to go down a path you might regret. If it takes a day or so and several drafts to get it right, so be it. If any of your staff members suggest that your draft appears to be some type of a personal catharsis, you need to consider either a rewrite or abandoning this forum of communications.
Examples of appropriate topics
Absent complicating circumstances, appropriate topics for the chief to share their perspective might include, but are not necessarily limited to, pending laws and legislation, sentencing guidelines, municipal funding measures, investigative efforts, long-term strategies on career progression, and philosophy on promotions and assignments.
Topics to typically stay away from are those related to a particular person, criticism of employee organizations or city administration, labor contracts, criminal investigative matters that have not run their complete legal course, investigative strategies or anything that might jeopardize existing or future police activities, and matters that may tend to unfairly taint individuals or organizations.
Always be sensitive to the reality that things change, people change and your perspective might change as well. Don’t write yourself into a corner where you are eliminating the ability to change or modify your perspective. Depending on a variety of factors, you might choose to share your perspective on several occasions as a particular issue develops and evolves.
Diplomatically acknowledge contrary perspectives
Whatever the issue, be cordial and accurate in acknowledging perspectives different from yours. Examples of how to acknowledge those who might think differently include: “I understand the solid intentions of those who oppose the proposed utility tax, but hope the citizens will recognize the unmet needs now facing our city,” “My interpretation of the proposed law in the Capitol is that good people with good intentions are going down a path that may be today’s solution and tomorrow’s nightmare” and “While the new councilperson has raised issues in the past that have concerned us all, let’s demonstrate through our continued hard work and professionalism that his previous perceptions were inaccurate.”
Don’t take sides in a labor dispute!
You can’t win, so don’t try. Some of your troops will want you to be at the bargaining table pounding your fist on the table, and your city administration will not want negotiations influenced by your actions. Negotiations are often brutal and contentious, but once they are resolved, people typically once again become friendly and professionally cordial. However, any involvement by the chief of police will be long remembered — and not in a good way — by one side or the other, and can be the beginning of the end for a chief’s tenure.
The chief’s ability to share their perspective with the entire workforce on critical issues is an unbelievably valuable asset, if done carefully and sparingly. This approach has worked well for me in several agencies by filling a communication gap that the variety of conventional directives did not adequately provide for. It became a great tool in my information arsenal, and my hopes are that it may be a valuable asset in your toolbox as well.