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Effective Leaders Must Be Good Supervisors

by Sgt. John Zegzdryn

Published June 2004, The Florida Police Chief Magazine

Sergeant John Zegzdryn has been in Law Enforcement for over 18 years. Most of that time he has served on the Clearwater Police Department as an officer. Some of his duties consisted of serving as a Field Training Officer, a member of the S.W.A.T. team, and a detective. His last seven years have been serving in patrol as a line supervisor. His educational background is a B.A. in Criminology and he is currently working on his Masters degree in Criminal Justice. He can be contacted at

As a line supervisor for the past seven years,
I have been faced with the "ritual" of shift change. In patrol, this process occurs every four months where the officers in the division bid for the next shift they are going to work on. Depending on who goes where, this can be a very eventful process causing change in the makeup of the department's squads. As a supervisor, one is faced with acquiring new officers to supervise. This can be very challenging where one gets the chance to be exposed to new faces. However, there can also be some negative aspects attached to this process. As the schedule comes out, and time draws nearer to the shift change, there is usually talk about that one officer you need to "keep an eye on".

As a supervisor I find this to be a very frustrating situation. Unfortunately, most of the information about this "problematic" officer is either rumor or third hand information. To make matters worse, this information usually comes from unofficial sources. When one looks at the officer's evaluation there is usually little or no documentation about any problems. This is in direct contrast to the information that is coming from the supervisors, or other officers, who have had to deal with the officer in the past. What is being said about this officer is not what is being put in the evaluation. There are even times that the officer is not even aware that there is a problem.

I' ve faced such a problem. An officer came to my squad who had a reputation of taking a lot of time off. This officer could not be counted on to regularly show up for work. Allegedly, this officer came in late, called in sick, and took time off when the squad was short-handed. It went on for several years before the officer came to my squad. However, when one looked at the officer's evaluation there was no documentation about it. The only indicator there was a problem was the unofficial talk about it.

This behavior is contrary to the need to be mutually accountable when managing the officers under our command. (Nalbandian, J., & Nalbandian, C., 2002 p. 12)

I wanted to address the situation and monitor it so that it did not get out of hand. I kept a close eye on the time off the officer used. I was not going to let this officer take advantage of me or the rest of the squad. To my surprise, I did not detect any abuse. The officer took time off, called in sick, but did not abuse the situation. The officer gave proper notice for time off and was well within the acceptable behavior for taking time off.

In fact, when compared to other officers, this officer had a better reliability record for showing up for work others did. But, because this officer was labeled, there was a problem. One day, I finally called the officer in and spoke to him about the perception. I was surprised to find that I was the first one to discuss the alleged problem with the officer. The officer was unaware of the perception.
This was unfair. First, as the officer's new supervisor, I already had a predisposed belief that there was a problem. Fortunately, most people would not just blindly believe what was said. But even so, I still looked at this officer differently, which could have affected the way I treated this officer- especially when it came to time off. For example, what if the officer wanted to go to a school for training? Because of my tainted views, I may not grant the officer's request. This would harm the officer in two ways. First, he would lose out on the training. Second, the officer may also get discouraged for being treated unfairly.

This event could also strain the relationship between the supervisor and officer. He may not want to get assistance from a supervisor whom he feels treated him unfairly. Other officers on the squad may view this in a negative way causing morale issues. From this one incident, numerous negative implications could develop.

Another way this situation could be harmful to the officer is that it does not allow the officer a chance to correct the behavior. To begin with, there may not be a problem to correct. The officer may be unjustly labeled. There probably was some event in the officer's past that caused the initial belief that there was a problem. However, the problem should have been dealt with. After being dealt with, if there were no reoccurring incidents, the problem should be left in the past. It should not be used as "locker-room" gossip.
If there is a problem, it should be addressed in an appropriate manner. Unfortunately, this is an area that front line supervisors neglect.
This neglect comes manly in two ways. The first occurs when the supervisor avoids addressing the problem in order to avoid confrontation.
The supervisor does not want to deal with the negative aspects of supervision. Most supervisors find it easy to address the positive exchanges with officers. It is easy to tell someone they are doing a good job. However, when it comes to correcting a problem or pointing out some negative aspects of someone's work product, it becomes difficult. The supervisor usually avoids dealing with the problem by putting it off. After a while it is either forgotten altogether or so much time has elapsed, it becomes inappropriate to finally bring the issue up.
The second way the problem continues to be passed on is the most frustrating and most unfair. This occurs when a supervisor uses a double standard when dealing with an officer.

For example, an officer may do something wrong like be rude to a citizen. If it were another officer, the supervisor would take the proper action and correct the behavior. However, because this type of behavior has become synonymous with this officer, nothing is done. The supervisor will allow the problem to go on and use the excuse," that's just the way that officer is".

This becomes even more problematic because now the "bad" behavior is reinforced. Other supervisors also may avoid dealing with the problem because they don't want to be the "bad" guy. Again, the problem continues. Proper leadership requires one to manage their personnel to insure competence and control within the organization. (Zalenznik, 2004 p. 74)

As supervisors, we owe it to our officers to be honest and fair with them. Those who tell officers that they are doing a great job but then talk negatively about them to other supervisors are not good supervisors.

Officers who have a bad reputation should be given the opportunity to change that perception. One thing that is very frustrating to officers is to look good in their evaluations but have a problem reputation. These officers continually will be passed over for specialty assignments and promotions but will never be given a straight answer as to why. This is one of the biggest morale problems an officer can be faced with. They become frustrated with the futility of their situation until they finally give up. Usually their problem is worsened because now they are labeled as having a poor attitude. This is unfair because the officer just wants to be challenged and do a good job.

This behavior was detected in a study about motivation at the workplace. The results indicated that employees who were put in a position where they could not do their jobs became frustrated, lost their ambition, and usually left their job. This negatively affected the workplace. The motivated employees who cared, left, leaving behind the unmotivated employees who just did not care. (Britt, 2003, 17)

Leadership and supervision go hand in hand. To be a good leader, one also has to be a good supervisor. One cannot be a proficient leader without being a proficient supervisor. Some may think that the two are separate roles. On one occasion one takes on the role of a leader. On another occasion one takes on the role of a supervisor. This is not the case. They are intertwined.

Good supervisors and effective leaders deal with positive and negative personnel issues honestly and directly. And they follow through to ensure any problems are successfully resolved.

1. Nalbandian, J., & Nalbandian, C. (2002). Contemporary Challenges in Local Government. Public Management, 12
2. Zalenznik, A. (2004). Managers and Leaders, Are they Different?, Harvard Business Review, 74.
3. Britt, T., (2003). Black Hawk Down at Work. Harvard Business Review, 17.

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