Power Gap and
David Hudson, Marin Consulting Associates
America have developed some bad habits.
Employers in industry and government alike seem to have
relinquished their right to assure that individual employees make the
contributions for which they are paid.
Unfortunately, accountability seems to be more a subject of
discussion than of action.
Certainly, while most American workers are willing to
do their jobs, there are some in the work force who seem to feel entitled
to the employer’s scarce salary resources whether they produce or not.
Although these poor performers are there for all to see, they are
discussed only informally in most organizations.
Life goes on around them/ the whole system compensates for them.
They usually receive good performance ratings from supervisors who,
in turn, receive good ratings from the managers above them.
It has become commonplace for entire organizations to benevolently
support those who appear to have no interest in the missions they were
hired to serve.
Sadly, this has become the American Organizational Way
– a result, at least in part, of
the “Theory ‘Y’ Imperative” to trust everyone and to overlook any
evidence to the contrary.
the Power Gap in
written a few years ago for the journal of the California Peace
Officers’ Association, I attempted to stimulate a dialogue among law
enforcement managers about a critical but unpleasant subject:
supervisory powerlessness. The
Power Gap was defined as the
standoff between agency managers and their first-line supervisors.
push comes to shove, I can’t take the poor performer to task; my
managers won’t back me. I
just put up with it.”
The Manager says:
would back supervisors if they would just give me something to back!”
Supervisors and their managers seldom sit down together
to solve the stand off. The
issue occasionally comes up, but is seldom resolved.
Agency leaders expect sergeants to monitor the
officers’ conduct and performance.
If an officer is not performing to acceptable standards, the
sergeant is expected to do whatever is appropriate to correct the poor
performance; failing that, he is to complete the documentation necessary
to eventually dismiss anyone unwilling or unable to perform acceptably.
Indeed, this is the essential function of supervisors throughout
This is the logical view, perhaps, but it does not take
into account the Power Gap.
The Power Gap is present when supervisors feel powerless to
successfully claim acceptable work from their employees.
The reason commonly given nowadays is “lack of support from
above”. While seldom true,
the belief runs deep; it is almost unshakable in this generation of
some reason, police managers are reluctant to accept the fact that supervisors
feel uncertain about their power to hold employees accountable.
Conversely, supervisors resist admitting their sense of
powerlessness to their managers. The
to no dialogue, and too little problem-solving.
sergeants are convinced they are helpless, it is not hard to understand
why they so often look the other way, or find ways to rationalize why the
poor performer “isn’t so bad”.
It follows, then, that poor performers can expect to receive
satisfactory ratings and be permitted to blend into the background,
receiving pay, benefits and occasional promotions.
“After all,” the argument goes, “it’s only the few.
The others are good performers.
They compensate for the bad ones.
Besides, we get our work done.”
Perhaps the Power Gap could have been overlooked
indefinitely were it not for the mounting number of news stories like the
Rodney King incident and other such spectacles across the country.
Such incidents, regardless of who is found to be “right” or
“wrong,” overturn the argument that “the good ones compensate for
the poor ones.”
Power Gaps are almost impossible to identify and root
out because most agency levels seem to be in the habit of overlooking
them. Meanwhile, of the 8000
police supervisors and
managers from more than 300 agencies who have attended POST performance
and accountability workshops, over 80 percent claim to be powerless to
deal effectively with serious problem officers.
In such workshops, which bring the usual lack of
accountability out into the harsh glare of daylight, participants are
asked to define a real performance problem in their own ranks.
The following represents a common dialogue between the sergeant and
So you have a problem officer?
Yes. This one is a
zero. Just does enough to get
I don’t think he’s made a self- initiated arrest in years-at
not in the past six months. Maybe one or two
this quarter. No DUIs.
No Fis. If he
direct order on the spot, he won’t
But he does take calls?
When he answers his radio. It’s
hard to get him
Does he take his fair share of calls on the shift?
Well…he milks his calls. Probably
takes two or
three times the amount of time the others take on a
routine call. So he’s just not available.
manages to do half of what the others do-on calls, I
Trainer: How about
Hopeless. I have to
kick back most of his reports. He
doesn’t do all that many. Loses
them. He likes
the victim out of the report.
I have a complaint on my
desk right now, a domestic violence call…no report.
Are these the only problems?
There’s more. Lots of unsustained complaints about
verbal abuse, rudeness and force, stuff like that... He was
suspended for vehicular accidents, but it hasn’t helped.
He’s back to his old ways. Says
we’re picking on him.
So, are you going to document this guy’s performance so that
your agency can
eventually put an ultimatum in front
Are you going to
ask him to either perform to standards or face
possible dismissal, for example?
Anything like that…?
Well, he’s a good cop. He’s
capable. He’s been like
this for years.
He does enough to get by. He’d
to really screw up to lose his job.
It won’t happen in
my department-Not just for performance.
So what will happen? What
are you going to do?
The officer is really angry right
now…I marked him
down to “competent” on his last rating.
He has been
rated “highly competent” by other supervisors for
quite a while now. But he claims it’s a personality
conflict… that I’m out to get him.
So you documented that this officer was “competent”?
curious-what would it take
to get an unsatisfactory rating?
Like I said. He does enough to get by.
What does that mean-“enough to get by”?
That means you take the calls you can’t get out of.
You don’t leave any paper for the next shift to do; it
You keep your nose clean. No
No bad press.
Trainer: But I know
your managers. I think they
really want more than
this for the $80,000
to $100,000 they spend to put an officer
on the street each
We want more than this too. But
we’re talking real
world. I inherited
this guy. Others have tried.
said you didn’t want us to B.S. you.
So you have your worst problem performer a “competent”
Got any other ideas? It’s
As stated above, this dialogue repeats itself weekly.
Only the names change. The
sergeants seem sincere in their frustration about their perceived
powerlessness. They would rather be real supervisors.
Top-level managers almost always refuse to believe that
one of their own supervisors would complain about feeling powerless as in
the above dialogue. To
the observer who hears both sides, however, such managerial disbelief
suggests that, although well known off the record, the Power Gap must be a
“secret” at the formal or official level.
The phrase, “the secret that everyone knows,” comes to mind.
So, what to do? It
won’t help to be outraged or indignant about the Power Gap. It won’t help to attack those who bring the unpleasant
subject to light. There is no
one person to blame. All of
us had a hand in shaping it. We
all listened to too many new management theories while ignoring what was
happening before our eyes. We
allowed the Power Gap to become embedded in the American culture-a
commonplace part of the landscape in America’s corporations, government
institutions and law enforcement agencies, as well.
At least in law enforcement, there are those who are taking
deliberate steps to close it. These
departments have learned that a climate can be created wherein being a
professional employee isn’t optional; it’s the only option.
Does It Take to Close the Power Gap?
In the leadership ranks, it takes an unshakable
commitment to ensure professional-level performance from employees and the
courage to confront and follow through on anything less.
Agency leaders (from sergeants up) must agree-in specific
terms-about the service to be delivered by the agency.
(A good labor attorney must also be consulted to clarify the
agency’s right to a day’s work for a day’s pay.)
Performance expectations (standards) must be specified.
All command levels, from agency head through first-line supervisor,
must negotiate a common view of the performance to be delivered by
officers, dispatchers, detectives, etc.
They must then ask employees for these results and be ready to take
the flak from a generation of employees unaccustomed to leaders who follow
through to ensure accomplishment.
Each agency level must be held accountable for holding the next
level accountable in turn.
Guidelines and training must be provided to show
all supervisory personnel how to judiciously use their rightful
power to ensure performance by all hands.
(Training alone, however, will not put the sergeant back in charge.
Holding him accountable for ensuring his subordinates’
performance is imperative.)
Many law enforcement leaders see the above list as
“pie-in-the-sky” thinking. They
say that, however good it may sound in theory, it’s just not
practical-“Not here, we’re too big (or to small).”
These managers will not believe that one of California’s larger
agencies has already achieved the above steps.
So have some of the smaller ones, as well as a few medium sized
ones. It takes time, of
course, but one chief has done the job in less than three years.
popular alternative of overlooking poor performers leaves the option open
for employees to perform unprofessionally.
Despite Theory Y teachings (giving employees job freedom, etc.),
consequences can be severe if employees are the only ones to monitor and
regulate their own performance.
Many fine law enforcement leaders are shaking their
heads about recent media reports of police failure on the street. If even a quarter of such reports are true, we must wonder
why they happen as often as they do.
On the other hand, if over 80 percent of police
supervisors can point to a bad apple in their ranks and claim (accurately
or not) that they are powerless to “fix it”, then the performance
failures that make the nightly news are remarkable not because they
happened in the first place, but because we are so perplexed by their
Dave Hudson of Marin Consulting can be contacted at: MarinConsulting@aol.com
Or visit the Marin Consulting website at: www.MarinConsultingAssoc.com