Focus on Supervision

The Two Roles of Supervision in Performance Counseling

By Brian Fitch, Ph.D.

Law enforcement supervisors have two primary responsibilities in molding productive, well-disciplined officers: rewarding good behavior and correcting poor performance.1 Fortunately, most officers support the organization, work hard, and never require any type of formal counseling. When problems do arise, they usually are solved quickly by an informal discussion without the need for any advanced preparation. Yet, despite the high quality of law enforcement personnel in most organizations, performance problems still may occur. It seems that some officers, regardless of the best efforts of well-intentioned supervisors, simply refuse to change. How leaders handle these performance challenges can have a profound impact on employee engagement and organizational culture.

While many supervisors do a competent job of rewarding good behavior, they often find it difficult to tackle performance problems because they lack the basic tools, training, and mind-set to do so effectively. Yet, confronting problem behaviors effectively is just as critical to the success of a law enforcement agency as rewarding proper conduct. However, before leaders can expect to hold their personnel accountable for meeting organizational objectives, these employees need to know exactly what is expected of them. Too often, supervisors assume that officers understand what is required, thereby missing important opportunities to clarify goals, solicit commitment, and provide important milestones.

The basic philosophy behind performance counseling in any law enforcement agency is the same: individual officers must be responsible for their own performance. Indeed, the effectiveness of most organizations can be greatly improved when supervisors appropriately reinforce good conduct; address ineffective behaviors early; and hold officers accountable for their performance in positive, productive ways. The author offers law enforcement supervisors and managers some of the tools and knowledge necessary to accomplish these objectives. 

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Supervisors should begin their efforts to improve organizational performance with an understanding that most officers are committed to the agency, its mission, and its values. Provided that officers have a clear understanding of what is expected, supervisors should take every opportunity to reward good performance. In simplest terms, behavior is a function of its consequences; therefore, people are motivated to perform actions for which they are rewarded while avoiding those for which they are punished. Rewarding appropriate behavior (what psychologists refer to as positive reinforcement) can profoundly impact the broad range of behaviors that officers exhibit, as well as the productivity, morale, and effectiveness of the organization.2

Decades of scientific research have supported the finding that positive reinforcement increases the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated (i.e., the law of effect principle).3 Similarly, behavior appropriately punished is more likely to disappear than if allowed to continue unchallenged. In either case, supervisors should be specific about the behavior being rewarded or, in other cases, punished. They should avoid generalities, such as “great job” or “poor attitude,” in favor of specific, unambiguous statements that focus on particular behaviors. For example, “I like the way you asked all of the officers present at the debriefing for their opinions, allowed each person to speak, and took notes” is more effective than “great debriefing,” which provides no specific description of the behaviors being rewarded and reinforced.

When supervisors emphasize and reinforce specific behaviors, officers have a better understanding of how to repeat their successes, maximize rewards, and avoid failures. Because the likelihood of officers repeating a behavior hinges on the reinforcement they receive, supervisors should continue to reward them each time they perform appropriately. Only by recognizing desired behaviors consistently and directly in ways that officers find reinforcing can leaders increase the probability of their employees continuing to perform the activity in the future.

The basic principles of reward and reinforcement constantly are at work in all law enforcement organizations. Everything an officer says and does receives some kind of reinforcement—positive or negative, intentional or unintentional. Rather than relying on luck or happenstance, competent supervisors look for ways to create positive, rewarding experiences that foster effective performance.4 Skilled supervisors continuously scan the work environment for examples of superior performance and quickly recognize officers for a job well-done. This includes employees who maintain excellent attendance, assist other officers, make valid arrests, or simply follow the rules.


Setting limits, holding officers accountable, and confronting poor performance can prove difficult for many supervisors. Absent the proper skills and training, most fall naturally into one of two categories: they either attempt to coerce employees into performing appropriately or try to avoid problems altogether. In the first instance, supervisors rely on their formal authority to compel acceptable performance. While this approach often proves effective at producing short-term results, it seldom motivates the type of long-term change necessary to correct chronic performance issues. In contrast, supervisors who employ the second strategy tend to avoid problems because they fear a messy confrontation and, in so doing, allow the officer’s poor performance to continue unabated, often with highly predictable consequences.5

Fortunately, a third alternative exists: holding a formal counseling session in a positive, principled way that makes the supervisor’s needs clear but respects the officer’s feelings and rights. The following three-step formula—the DER model—makes it possible for leaders to set limits, confront unacceptable behaviors, and hold officers accountable:6

  • Describe the problem
  • Express the result
  • Request a change in behavior

Describe the Problem

The goal of the first step—to describe the problem in specific, objective behavioral terms—arguably is the most difficult and important aspect of conducting a successful performance-counseling session. At this point, supervisors should focus on communicating the gap between what employees currently do and the organizational standard. In other words, what are supervisors getting in terms of performance, and what do they need? It is important that the description be as objective and unarguable as possible and free of bias, emotion, or attribution.

Express the Result

During this stage, the supervisor describes the impact of the problem (i.e., the good business reasons for resolving the issue). Has the officer’s behavior created more work for other personnel? Has it resulted in citizen complaints? Or, has the poor performance exposed the agency to liability? Despite the issue, the supervisor should be clear about why the officer’s current performance cannot continue. Without such reasons, no basis exists for conducting a performance- counseling session. After all, simply disliking an officer’s attitude or demeanor, when that conduct has no appreciable effect on the employee’s work product, is insufficient grounds for a counseling session.

Request a Change in Behavior

While supervisors often find it easy to identify what they do not like, many have difficulty describing the precise behaviors necessary to remedy the situation and satisfy the organizational standard. A leader’s job is to ensure that officers perform their duties in accordance with organizational policy. This means that supervisors are interested in behaviors and, therefore, should express the necessary change in terms of clear, specific, objective actions—the more precise and quantifiable, the better.


“One effective way of preparing for a performance counseling session is to create an outline highlighting the main points for discussion.”

Supervisors often stumble in their efforts to address performance problems because they fail to prepare adequately for the counseling session. Again, they should focus their efforts on objective, quantifiable behaviors, not such intangibles as feelings, beliefs, or attitudes. For example, if an officer has a poor attitude but performs the job well, performance counseling is not needed, although the supervisor may opt to send the employee to leadership or life-skills training. One effective way of preparing for a performance-counseling session is to create an outline highlighting the main points for discussion. Preparing ahead of time can significantly increase success in a number of ways, including enhancing supervisors’ confidence, insulating them against manipulation, and providing reference material in the event they become temporarily distracted. A successful performance-counseling script should focus on five major areas of concern.7

Research the Problem

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The old adage “failing to prepare is preparing to fail” aptly applies to counseling a performance issue. Prior to such a session, supervisors should research the details of any instance in question. For example, if an officer has received a string of discourtesy complaints, the supervisor should be armed with the dates, times, and specifics of each incident. Performing the necessary research will, among other things, enhance the supervisor’s credibility, keep the conversation focused, and lay the groundwork for a successful resolution.

Describe the Issue

Supervisors should outline the problem in specific and unarguable behavioral terms while avoiding assumptions or attitudinal allegations. In other words, they should stick with the facts. Supervisors cannot possibly know what an officer is thinking or feeling. Thus, they should restrict their description to objective, quantifiable behaviors, not feelings, intuitions, or assumptions.

State the Desired Performance

Effective leaders make their observations as specific as possible and avoid vague or fuzzy statements of performance, such as “I want you to be more positive” or “I want you to enjoy your job.” The statement of desired performance should explain the organizational standard in clear behavioral terms that easily can be understood and observed. Because supervisors often fail to develop a concise behavioral definition of what they want, they speak in general, abstract terms. Yet, if they expect officers to understand precisely what is expected of them, they must describe the desired performance clearly and objectively.8

Give Good Business Reasons

Absent a set of good business reasons, no performance discussion ever should take place. Preparing and presenting a list of reasons helps officers understand why their conduct is inappropriate and why it needs to be addressed. More important, however, it can help gain the officers’ cooperation in solving the problem. Officers, like most people, tend to do better with the “what” if they understand the “why.” While this process is not very difficult for most supervisors, it is critical to the success of any meaningful outcome.

List the Consequences

Regardless of the reasons for poor performance, the meeting should include a discussion of the logical consequences that will follow should the officers choose to continue in this manner.9 In no way should supervisors appear to threaten their officers, but they should highlight the natural implications of any future conduct—either positive or negative—that will result. Ultimately, the officers will decide whether to improve and will endure the consequences of that decision; therefore, they should understand, under no uncertain terms, precisely what is at stake.


To address performance in the most productive way possible, supervisors should remain calm, polite, and professional. Performance-counseling sessions are intended to correct performance problems, not to serve as a platform for personal agendas or as a vehicle for expressing dislike of an officer. Effective supervisors do not take performance problems personally. They understand that officers being counseled are not bad people; they are good persons experiencing a performance problem. Thus, skilled supervisors keep an open mind, treat all employees fairly, and show officers the respect that they deserve.10

Effective leaders also understand the importance of getting to the point of the meeting early in the conversation. For example, “Officer Smith, there is a problem with your attendance, and we need to discuss it” or “Officer Donahue, you have received three complaints for discourtesy in the last month, and we need to get this problem fixed” can express the reason for the discussion in clear, specific terms early in the encounter.

Throughout any performance discussion, supervisors should avoid taking responsibility for fixing the problem—emphasizing, instead, the importance of choice and personal responsibility. While the supervisor can openly discuss options, the responsibility for fixing the problem rests squarely with the officers. After all, they choose when they come to work or how they treat the public, not their supervisor. Therefore, the officers must address the problem and experience the natural consequences of their decisions.11

Because they understand the importance of reinforcement, effective supervisors quickly reward any positive change in an officer’s behavior, however slight or seemingly insignificant. Unfortunately, many fail to celebrate the little things, opting instead to wait for a “breakthrough”—a complete shift in the officer’s conduct—before offering reinforcement. Because officers tend to repeat rewarded behaviors, failing to provide the appropriate positive reinforcement early enough can frustrate progress and reduce the prospect of long-term behavioral change.12

Finally, supervisors often fail to reinforce behaviors consistently and frequently enough to make any appreciable difference in an officer’s conduct. Reinforcing a behavior once, twice, or even three times usually is not enough. Behavioral psychologists have found that in many cases, it can take dozens, if not hundreds, of reinforcements to imprint a desired behavior. If supervisors want the new behaviors to take hold, they must invest the time and energy necessary to reward the officer’s conduct appropriately; otherwise, it will be business as usual.


Rewarding proper conduct and correcting poor performance constitute the two main roles that law enforcement supervisors play. Timely, consistent recognition of a job well-done can go a long way toward helping officers remain the stalwart protectors of society. At the same time, supervisors must intervene quickly when problems arise. They must hold officers accountable for their performance in positive, productive ways. To this end, formal counseling sessions can help supervisors deal with performance issues while respecting the feelings and rights of their employees. 


1 For a discussion on law enforcement supervision, see Donald J. Schroeder, Frank Lombardo, and Jerry Strollo, Management and Supervision of Law Enforcement Personnel, 4th ed. (New York, NY: Gould Publications, 2006).
2 For a complete discussion of behaviorism, see B.F. Skinner, About Behaviorism (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1976).
3 For additional information, see (accessed on June 16, 2010).
4 For a discussion on the proper application of positive reinforcement, see Aubrey C. Daniels, Other People’s Habits: How to Use Positive Reinforcement to Bring Out the Best in People Around You (Atlanta, GA: Performance Management Publications, 2007).
5 For a complete description of styles, see Dick Grote, Discipline Without Punishment: The Proven Strategy That Turns Problem Employees into Superior Performers, 2nd Ed. (New York, NY: AMACOM, 2006).
6 For more on the DER model, see Reneau Z. Peurifoy, Anger: Taming the Beast (New York, NY: Kodansha American, Inc, 1999).
7 For more on preparing for a performance discussion, see Micki Holliday, Coaching, Mentoring, and Managing: Breakthrough Strategies to Solve Performance Problems and Build Winning Teams, 2nd ed. (Franklin Lakes, NJ, 2001).
8 For more on setting performance objectives, see Brian Cole Miller, Keeping Employees Accountable for Results: Quick Tips for Busy Managers (New York, NY: AMACOM, 2006).
9 For a more on accountability and consequences, see Roger Connors and Tom Smith, How Did That Happen: Holding People Accountable for Results the Positive, Principled Way (New York, NY: Portfolio, 2009).
10 For a list of appropriate behaviors, see Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillian, and Al Switzler, Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When The Stakes Are High (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2002).
11 For a discussion on personal accountability, see Mark Samuel, The Accountability Revolution: Achieve Breakthrough Results IN HALF THE TIME! 2nd ed. (Tempe, AZ: Facts on Demand Press).
12 For a discussion on the importance of reinforcement and shaping, see Alan E. Kazdin, Behavior Modification in Applied Settings, 6th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomas Learning, 2001).

“...skilled supervisors keep an open mind, treat all employees fairly, and show officers the respect that they deserve.”