By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice
At some point in your career as a law enforcement officer, it is inevitable that you will deal with a supervisor who creates a toxic work environment. As in any career field, law enforcement is especially susceptible to these types of bad supervisors, which is not helpful in an environment that is already inherently stressful due to the life-and-death nature of policing work.
Why Toxic Leadership Creates Problems for Police Officers
Poor supervision in law enforcement creates a sense of mistrust. Officers in the field often develop an us-versus-them mentality that impacts their work performance.
If a bad supervisor creates tension between fellow officers, for instance, this tension can result in reduced safety because officers can become preoccupied with infighting among their coworkers. In field situations where quick reactions are often essential to preserve life, that infighting could also lead to people not backing up each other and other problems.
Toxic supervisors lead through a fear of career retribution and the power of their position, instead of using effective leadership styles. By contrast, effective leaders set a good example for their subordinates, display empathy and foster motivation in subordinate police officers. These types of leaders create a positive police culture where officers enjoy coming to work; they know that a good supervisor has their backs.
Toxic supervisors purposely create conflict in the workplace, which creates instability. They are quick to pin their own mistakes on subordinates to make themselves look good to the chain of command, instead of taking ownership as a leader when mistakes are made.
In addition, toxic supervisors prevent subordinates from using their own discretion to make decisions, demoralize employees and create disincentives to work hard. However, toxic leadership in the workplace is easy to recognize; it appears through high employee turnover, increased use of sick time and disgruntled behavior.
Related link: What to Know about Pursuing a Career in Criminal Justice
How to Deal with Toxic Leadership
When you’re dealing with bad supervisors, especially in a police department, it is best to use emotional intelligence strategies such as using clear and direct communication, responding to conflict without being emotional, and taking critiques well to make the best of the situation. Ideally, you don’t want toxic leadership to impact your morale, job performance or safety.
For officers who are in a toxic work environment due to a poor supervisor, it is important to first realize that it is the supervisor creating the workplace’s tension. Ideally, identify ways to find mutual ground with a toxic supervisor.
Often, bad supervisors create a toxic environment because they are overwhelmed and under-prepared by the circumstances that are occurring in the workplace. In these cases, a subordinate may be able to take a collaborative approach with the supervisor to resolve conflict.
Also, toxic leaders are often unable to be flexible and unable to focus on the best interests of subordinates above their own self-interest. In this case, remember that working with the toxic supervisor is hopefully only temporary and staying off the supervisor’s radar is best.
Similarly, a toxic supervisor may require that reports be submitted at an inconvenient time or may make ill-advised decisions in the field when a better way is available. Instead of butting heads with toxic supervisors, follow their guidance as long as it is within policy. A toxic supervisor is unlikely to be open for subordinate feedback on how things could be done better and addressing improvements to processes is only likely to cause irritation.
Related link: Helping First Responders Overcome the Effects of Stress
Resist the Temptation to Put in Less Work for Toxic Leadership
When you’re in a toxic work environment, it is human nature for you to put in less effort. However, this temptation should be resisted. Continuing to work hard despite low morale places your career in your own hands and reduces the ability of a toxic supervisor to manipulate you.
Executive Management Are Responsible for Mitigating Toxic Supervisors
Executive management should take steps to mitigate toxic supervision within their ranks. This goal can be accomplished by enabling disgruntled, unhappy officers to privately speak with members of the chain of command about the workplace climate. For such conversations, subordinates should have clear examples and a well-structured argument for how and why a toxic work environment exists.
Executive leaders have a responsibility to hold supervisors accountable for their leadership style and subordinates’ morale. Executive leadership should also utilize workplace climate assessments and 360-degree supervisor evaluations that enable subordinates to provide input into their supervisors’ leadership.
Overall, toxic leadership in police departments creates stress and other problems for officers who already deal with life-and-death situations in their daily work routine. For these officers, it is important to not take the outcomes of poor leadership personally and not allow a toxic work environment to create further personal stress, which could affect personal health and family life.
Instead, subordinate officers should seek opportunities to ensure that executive leaders are aware of the problems toxic leadership is causing at work. Officers should remain focused on providing the best possible policing services and, if feasible, distance themselves from the toxic supervisor by seeking other units within a police organization.
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