Leadership Spotlight

Addressing Disengagement

A male police office in his patrol car looking at a cell phone.

Unfortunately, “quiet quitting” is infecting the world of policing. If allowed to continue, it may fester and cause irreparable harm to the profession. We are hearing a lot about this latest buzzword and phenomenon. Quiet quitting refers to the point when employees “do the bare minimum at their job. They often appear to be disengaged from their work and choose not to go the extra mile while doing just enough to avoid being fired.”1

Bosses have often seen quiet quitting as resulting from a character flaw, lack of work ethic, generational differences, personality conflicts, or simple laziness. However, it is much more than that. Employees mentally give up because they feel threatened by a lack of support and caring from inside and/or outside the organization.

There is often a connection between leadership and quiet quitting. Leaders have a duty to examine themselves and evaluate how they contribute, what the work environment may lack, and how to inspire or remotivate those who have lost engagement.

This is no easy feat in today’s challenging world of policing. Issues like recruitment, retention, budgetary constraints, training requirements, community relationships, legal challenges, personnel matters, and politics take up most of leaders’ time and create a tremendous amount of stress. At the same time, those stressors have a trickle-down effect on everyone else in the organization. Stressed-out leaders who cannot navigate or connect with the wants and needs of their employees contribute to this phenomenon of quiet quitting. In fact, there has been a trend toward leaders engaging in this same practice as they face seemingly insurmountable challenges every day.

A 2020 survey of 4,300 law enforcement members found that 56% of officers are satisfied with their job. At the same time, 44% indicated that they have lessened their commitment to serve the community, and 34% said that the current climate had lessened their pride in being a police officer. Only 26% said they would recommend a law enforcement career to a young person.2 To add to these findings, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that officers are less fulfilled and more frustrated than typical workers overall.3

Fulfillment and sense of belonging to something that serves a higher social purpose are critical to motivation. That call to service draws people to a law enforcement career. If lacking, motivation and sense of value and purpose are key to addressing quiet quitting in any organization. Those surveys showed that law enforcement leaders need to take a deep look at how to motivate members and reconnect them to the meaning and worth needed to perform at their best.

In the longer term, motivated officers are the best recruiting mechanism that police departments have. At the very least, officers who are quiet quitting are not recruiting others to follow. At worst, those who are not satisfied or fulfilled and are still performing are not going to be encouraging others to jump on board either.

So, what role does leadership play, and, more important, what can you do as a leader? First, you must communicate. Ask officers how they are feeling and what you can do to show support. The surveys indicated that officers desire to reconnect with their communities and spend more time doing community policing. Which of your officers feel that way? Do you know? Ask.

“Employees mentally give up because they feel threatened by a lack of support and caring from inside and/or outside the organization.”

How do your officers regard your leadership? Do you have an accurate picture? Self-awareness and self-perception are key components to effectively leading in challenging times. The surveys showed that officers feel as if they are not consulted or asked about policy changes directly affecting them and that the department is more concerned with public perception than employee well-being and motivation.4

Officers also believe that local officials do not understand what they need. As a leader, you must bridge that gap for them. This involves reconnecting your personnel to their purpose and educating local leaders about the needs of officers. Further, your job is to connect officers’ needs to public perception and policy. Having the necessary data, knowledge, and relationships and a persuasive presence with all audiences is essential.

To slow and even prevent quiet quitting, law enforcement leadership needs to refocus and learn from some key mistakes that even good leaders make.

  • Failing to be the in-group champion — to express pride and love of what you do and with whom you do it, regardless of the stressors you or your organization may face.
  • Not connecting people to the mission through effective communication that is personal, insightful, and meaningful.
  • Neglecting to practice and model wellness (cognitive, physical, emotional, spiritual).
  • Valuing perfection over progress — small steps forward should be celebrated wins.
  • Focusing on missions, policies, and processes over people — how you make people feel matters.
  • Being inconsistent in your leadership (decisions, mood, communication).
  • Not holding others and yourself accountable for performance deficiencies — address poor performers and other quiet quitters to see a positive response.
  • Contributing to compassion fatigue — not showing and practicing empathy is a trust and motivation killer.

“To slow and even prevent quiet quitting, law enforcement leadership needs to refocus and learn from some key mistakes that even good leaders make.”

The good news is that the studies found that officers considered serving their communities the most satisfying aspect of their job (56%), followed by fighting crime (46%). Also important to them is their relationships with colleagues (31%).5 Certainly, both formal and informal leaders can make the difference between those who quit the job and walk away, quiet quit, or regroup and drive the mission forward.

Marian Elizabeth “Beth” Coleman, an instructor in the Leadership Education Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. She can be reached at mecoleman@fbi.gov.


1 Alan Price, “Is ‘Quiet Quitting’ The Perfect Wake-Up Call for Employers and Employees?” Forbes, October 12, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeshumanresourcescouncil/2022/10/12/is-quiet-quitting-the-perfect-wake-up-call-for-employers-and-employees/?sh=b160af72f120.
2 Bob Harrison and John S. Hollywood, “What Do Law Enforcement Officers Want for the Future of Policing?” and Tim Dees, “How Satisfied Are Cops with Their Careers?” Police 1 Special Issue: What Cops Want in 2021, accessed December 15, 2022, https://www.police1.com/police-products/body-cameras/articles/digital-edition-what-cops-want-in-2021-BtmyyGkg84zplSlw/.
3 Rich Morin, “Roughly One-in-Five Police Frequently Feel Angry and Frustrated on the Job,” Pew Research Center, March 9, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/03/09/roughly-one-in-five-police-frequently-feel-angry-and-frustrated-on-the-job/.
4 Dees.
5 Harrison and Hollywood.