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Corrections Administrators Must Change their Leadership Style

By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety

What’s the leading cause of stress among correctional officers? Many assume working in a volatile and often dangerous environment surrounded by criminal offenders would be the leading cause of stress for officers, but that’s not the case, said American Military University criminal justice professor Dr. Michael Pittaro during his keynote address to the New Jersey Chapter of the American Correctional Association (NJACA) conference on April 1.

Instead, research shows that the two leading causes of stress reported by correctional officers are due to weak or inadequate leadership and other problems with the organization’s structure. In a National Institute of Justice report, officers reported their greatest sources of stress came from organizational issues, including inconsistent discipline, poor communication, and lack of support from supervisors.

Transformational Leadership Style
AMU professor Dr. Michael Pittaro discusses the importance of transformational leadership practices during his keynote address at the NJACA conference. (Photo: Mike Hickman Photography)

During his presentation, Pittaro emphasized that if administrators truly want to change the culture of corrections—an often negative work environment that causes high levels of stress, burnout, and, in too many cases, suicide—they need to dramatically change their leadership style.

[Related: Suicide Among Corrections Officers: It’s Time for an Open Discussion]

His presentation, Transformational Leadership: Improving the Culture of Corrections, outlined the basics of transformational leadership practices and provided guidance about how administrators can start to adopt this positive leadership style.

What is Transformational Leadership?

Transformational leadership focuses on team building, motivation, and collaboration with employees at all different levels of an organization. The principles of transformational leadership require leaders to focus heavily on empowering and involving their employees by setting goals and using positive incentives to push employees to higher levels of performance, while providing opportunities for personal and professional growth.

[Related: Transformational Leadership and the Impact on Morale, Satisfaction in Corrections]

“Leaders should want to empower employees and help them rise up the ranks,” he said. “And they’re not doing it just to be kind and altruistic—if employees are motivated and performing well, those who are in charge will get the acknowledgement for having an effective team,” he said.

Pittaro discussed the “four I’s” of transformational leadership style:

  • Idealized Influence: Leader serves as an ideal role model for followers. They are often admired and respected for this.
  • Inspirational Motivation: Transformational leaders have the ability to inspire and motivate followers.
  • Individualized Consideration: Transformational leaders demonstrate genuine concern for the needs and feelings of followers, which brings out the best efforts from each individual. Little things like asking how someone is doing can show you have an interest in that person’s well-being.
  • Intellectual Stimulation: Transformational leaders challenge followers to be innovative and think creatively.

How to Adopt Transformational Leadership Style

Focus on Positive Motivation

The first thing leaders need to do is change the negative work environment that exists in too many correctional facilities, Pittaro emphasized. “Currently, many administrators lead through punitive discipline and authoritative actions, but research shows that most people are motivated by praise and acknowledgement rather than constant negativity,” he said.

Administrators need to make a concerted effort to acknowledge good work happening in the organization. “Correctional officers know they’re not likely to get raises or bonuses,” he said to audience laughter, “but even just a little praise or pat on the back can go a long way to motivating them.”

Discipline in Private, Praise in Public

Creating a more positive work environment means administrators need to be more cognizant of when and how they communicate with employees. In Pittaro’s experience, many administrators publicly discipline employees in front of others, which creates a demotivating and negative environment. These same administrators tend to praise employees in private. Administrators must do the exact opposite: Discipline employees in private and praise them in public.

Actively Engage with Employees

Administrators need to start opening their doors to employees, said Pittaro. They must get out from behind their desks and interact with officers within the facility. “Engaging people and making them feel like their thoughts are valued and their concerns are being considered can go a long way to keeping people motivated,” said Pittaro.

Focus on Transparency

Leaders need to more openly communicate with officers and tell them what is happening at the facility. “Correctional officers need to understand the vision and mission of the prison and know why changes are occurring and why certain policies are being put in place,” said Pittaro. Being open and transparent gives officers more information about why they’re being asked to do certain things. Having this understanding can help them do a better job and understand how their role fits into the bigger mission of the agency.

Be an Active Listener

Part of adopting a transformational leadership style is learning more about employees and wanting to know about the challenges and issues officers face on the job. To learn this information, administrators must remain open-minded and learn how to be an active listener. “In general, administrators are just not listening to the front line,” said Pittaro. “Leaders must listen to people’s concerns and help to resolve issues.”

Emphasize Team Building

Administrators need to remind officers and supervisors that lives depend on their ability to work as a team. The reality of working in a prison is that violent incidents can occur at any time. “Officers need to know that if they’re in trouble, their teammates will be there to quickly help them,” he said.

Prior to Pittaro’s presentation, Commissioner Gary Lanigan of the New Jersey Department of Corrections mentioned how officer teamwork had helped save an officer who was attacked by an inmate just a few hours before the start of NJACA.

Be a Coach and Mentor

Part of this shift away from an authoritative leadership style is adopting the approach of serving as a coach and mentor to employees. “You have to prove to employees that you’re available and approachable,” said Pittaro. That encourages dialogue and encourages employees to share information with administrators. Not only do leaders themselves have to take a mentorship approach to others, but more importantly, they need to set up a system of mentorship within the ranks. For example, new hires should be set up with more experienced employees as mentors. Employees acting as mentors need to receive additional training about how to be an effective mentor.

Why Make the Shift?

Transformational leadership practices are not new—this leadership style has been well-established in the corporate and private sector world since the 1970s, said Pittaro. With some work and open-mindedness, these same principles and practices—along with the benefits—can work to improve the correctional field. While many of these principles require leaders to be more involved and engaged with employees, Pittaro emphasized that “it’s a different approach, not a soft approach. If we want to improve the culture of corrections, we need to work to inspire and motivate our people.”

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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