Leadership Spotlight

Tribal Supervision

A stock image of two business professionals in a meeting.

“Did you see Officer Smith’s uniform? It’s tattered and stained.” “I just don’t understand why the traffic guys get away with their banter on the radio.” “Detective Johnson was on a road job, and he was oblivious to traffic, just talking on his phone. Someone should say something.”

I have spent most of my 19 years in law enforcement as a supervisor. Whether as a sergeant, lieutenant, captain, or SWAT commander, I have heard complaints from colleagues about officers in our agency. When I ask them why they have not addressed these violations of policy, decorum, or safety, I receive myriad replies. However, one remains constant: “That officer does not work for me.” This explanation did not sit well with me as a young sergeant, nor does it today as a seasoned veteran.

To me, this parallels what occurs in our current political, sports, and religious environments — tribal adherence to a group. Despite seeing, hearing, or recognizing improper behavior, people simply decline to act because no one holds them accountable for the responsible party. However, this archaic way of thinking not only diminishes any chance of real and substantive change but diverges from the fundamentals of being a leader.

“Tribal supervision” differs from having a profound or substantive relationship with your employees. When supervisors manage a group of people, they are expected to take pride in their personnel and hold them accountable. They should provide clear expectations and resources and basically serve as guardrails for their people, sharing in successes, addressing deficiencies, and growing future leaders. Essentially, tribal supervision is an abdication of that responsibility. If supervisors fail to accept that addressing certain behavior detrimental to the agency, such as improper conduct or unmet expectations, is within the scope of their duties, they will not act.

Regardless of an agency’s size, most officers are not completely autonomous. They work collectively with other divisions, agencies, and professionals to meet their objectives. Being able to bring someone up to standard will benefit the whole agency much more than allowing an issue to go unchecked in hopes that someone else will address it. Moreover, as a supervisor, it is a vital part of one’s duties to ensure that employees know their role. Agency executives must advocate this expectation for their commanders. If everyone at the top is in sync, midlevel and frontline supervisors will eventually be their surrogates.

The suggestion that supervisors should “stay in their lane” when encountering issues outside of their immediate span of control is not only irresponsible but dangerous. All activity in a police station is entwined. For example, when professional standards in the station fail to meet expectations, that impacts operations on patrol. Having regular meetings with subordinates and interdivisional briefings helps all personnel develop a clear understanding of this. Rotating personnel through different divisions gives supervisors exposure to different facets of the agency and provides opportunities for employees to work and train with various units, thus, strengthening this mindset.

Supervisors should endeavor to create a culture of excellence, regardless of where they work. If they see an officer struggling, performing below standard, or breaking a policy, it is paramount that they correct such behaviors. The whole purpose of discipline is to cease that behavior, not punish the officer. A brief conversation may stop what could subsequently turn into a cascading issue. Most officers want to exceed expectations and meet their goals. Having an honest and civil conversation with them, albeit uncomfortable, would likely be received better than running to a subordinate’s supervisor to merely pass the buck.

I am a firm believer that you cannot immediately make a family in law enforcement — that takes trust, humility, and constant follow-through. What we can do is assemble a team and work toward that goal of family. But, this will not happen when supervisors relinquish their responsibilities.

Deputy Chief Benjamin Murphy of the New Britain, Connecticut, Police Department, a graduate of FBI National Academy Session 278, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. He can be reached at ben.murphy@newbritainct.gov.

“The suggestion that supervisors should ‘stay in their lane’ when encountering issues outside of their immediate span of control is not only irresponsible but dangerous.”