This month, I want to share with you one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned both in life and law enforcement. Admittedly, I should have discovered this “secret” long before I did, and I hope that it will help you find success in your personal and professional efforts. If you have either children or subordinates, you’ll probably pick up on the basic concept much quicker than those who do not.
Have you ever watched the interaction between a small child and their parent or a new recruit and their supervisor when the child or recruit verbalizes their internal curiosity? Once started, the questions often flow quite quickly unless they're stifled or belittled. “Why is the sky blue?” “Why do we have the policy about gratuities?” “Why do I have to go to bed so early?” “Why do in-custody reports have to be in on the same day?” These seemingly inane questions are viewed by some as bothersome or questioning of authority, and might result in a curt or evasive response, such as, “Because that’s the way it is” or “I don’t have time to explain” or, worse yet, “Just do what you’re told, rookie.”
I know this isn’t a comfortable subject for some, and there’s probably a good-sized contingent of experienced officers who believe new officers, like children, should be seen and not heard. There’s no other way to say this, so I’ll just say it: If you feel this way, you're wrong, and you’re missing out on real opportunities. Within reason, we should encourage curiosity and view inquiries as opportunities to form a firm foundation of cultural or professional knowledge and process. Don’t make those most in need of learning feel small or inadequate. If they trust you enough to ask and make themselves vulnerable, you should give them a thoughtful answer. Before you judge the question as impertinent or disrespectful, pause for a moment and consider whether taking a moment to develop rather than demean might be a good investment of time.
Please don’t misunderstand my point—I’m not suggesting the questioning of a directed task should evolve into an inappropriate questioning of authority. Rather, I’m simply trying to point out that human beings function much more effectively when they understand the underpinnings of the issue. Further, by reinforcing the role of the senior or supervisor as a resource and mentor, you will enhance the supervisory/subordinate relationship.
And there’s something else: Embracing questions may help your career significantly. Think for a moment how it feels when someone two or more levels up from your assignment asks you a question like, “Why did you officers do X?” Most of us get somewhat defensive (even if it’s not verbalized), assuming the inquiring party believes something was done incorrectly or inappropriately. That certainly was my reaction during the first half of my career, and it probably would have continued this way if not for a very wise city manager who, in the midst of peppering me with questions about an incident, took the time to explain that he often asked why so that he could understand, not because he believed something was wrong. He readily admitted he had little knowledge of police practice or procedure, and when he asked questions it was because he was trying to comprehend officers’ thought processes and the reasons behind police actions. Since then, I’ve tried to embrace answering “why?” questions as an opportunity to educate and enlighten rather than an attempt to criticize. Responding this way will show others you aren’t defensive about your actions, and that you will to take the time to explain. This builds trust and relationships that will help you throughout your career.
Sometimes “why?” questions aren’t easy to answer and involve a great deal of emotion, such as when there is community outcry over a police incident. In volatile situations, thank the questioner for asking (even if you think they’re trying to ambush you), and then take the opportunity to explain the police perspective. You may not convince everyone and you may not change the world overnight, but those who actually want to know the reason will appreciate the effort you made and will likely accept at least a part of your explanation even if they ultimately disagree with you.
Finally, I want to share one more powerful tool for when you’re the one doing the asking. If you see even a hint of defensiveness or posturing, you can usually defuse it by explaining that you’re just trying to understand (like the city manager did with me). Tell them (when appropriate) you know there may be more than one right answer, and you’d like to hear the thought process that went into their action. Or, if dealing with a topic you know little about, risk becoming just a little transparent and explain that you’d like to learn more about the reason behind certain rules or protocol.
We owe it to those with whom we work to help them understand why.