Public Safety Leadership: How to Establish Strong Relationships with Subordinates

by | March 12, 2021

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles, Finding the Leader in You, which will address key concepts in public safety leadership.

In last month’s article, we identified the basic role of a supervisor and defined essential supervisory elements using the acronym PRIDE. This month, we’ll focus on the importance of establishing strong relationships with subordinates.

Human nature often dictates how well your people will accept guidance and leadership. For the most part, we generally like to be led by those whom we admire, respect and have confidence in.

Think about the best supervisor you’ve had. What separated him/her from the bad supervisors? Perhaps they allowed you to do your job, uninterrupted. Or was it their desire to invest in your personal career development? How about the supervisor who understands the differences inherent in all people and changes their leadership style accordingly?

The first step requires a down and dirty analysis of individual strengths and weaknesses in both yourself and the people under your charge.

Regardless of the specifics, there is something that makes strong leadership stand out in your mind. Chances are, the leader understood you on a human level and valued your professional relationship and contributions to the organization.

Conduct a Self-Analysis

Forging a positive human relationship takes work. Before we can understand our people, we must understand ourselves. We must possess a comprehensive understanding of our own strengths and weaknesses.

Consider your own leadership attributes. Do you:

  • Believe in yourself? Effective leadership requires both technical proficiency and confidence.
  • Set a good example? This is imperative because your subordinates will model your behavior.
  • Have team meetings? Driven by an agenda, a meeting is a powerful way to foster communication and publicly recognize employee accomplishments.
  • Recognize good work? Human beings generally respond well to positive recognition and acknowledgment of team accomplishments.
  • Develop group spirit? Do not underestimate the power of attitude and how positive interactions within different teams fosters both motivation and productivity.
  • Provide opportunities for growth? Strong leaders understand the importance of leveraging the strengths of others. Empowering subordinates and allowing them to take on additional roles also enhances motivation.
  • Delegate authority? This doesn’t mean simply tasking employees with your work. Appropriate delegation enhances their ability to grow and take on additional responsibilities within the organization.

Key Areas for Consideration

Any good supervisor understands and respects the contributions of others. They also appreciate the value of knowing their people. We cannot connect to others on a professional level if we haven’t connected on a personal level. Human relationships take both time and effort and there are two key areas that warrant consideration.

Personality and Leadership Attributes
Have you ever disliked someone but didn’t really know why? Chances are your interactions with that person resulted in some type of personality conflict. Perhaps you didn’t share their point of view or perhaps it wasn’t even obvious—you just knew you would have difficulty maintaining a positive relationship with that person. In the workplace, we don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing who we work with or for. It’s important for supervisors to understand that all subordinates come from different backgrounds and are motivated by different things.

Considering the diversity of today’s workforce, it’s important to respect the differences that make us all unique. Channeling these differences into a functional team environment can be challenging. Although some supervisors embrace this challenge, others seek to change subordinates or group them into like classifications that are more in line with that supervisor’s personality attributes. If this occurs, the team breaks down and cliques can emerge.

Since personality has a significant impact on how we interact with others, our preferred leadership style also has an impact, both good and bad. Good leaders know their people and adjust their style of leadership based on the individual person and situation. Although this sounds easy, it is generally a challenge for even the most well-intentioned supervisors. It requires a selfless desire to work outside of our comfort zone and in some cases, step into unfamiliar territory.

Case in point: My personality has a strong dose of obsessive compulsion. Coupled with more than three decades of work within highly structured law enforcement and military environments, this tendency toward obsessive-compulsion has given me an autocratic leadership style. While useful in some situations, this style of leadership could be extremely corrosive in the wrong situations or with the wrong personnel since it lends itself to micromanagement.

But many of my leadership and command roles involved working with highly skilled employees who required little supervision. Over time, I realized that using a more laissez-faire approach resulted in improved morale and enhanced productivity. This realization took years of development, a great deal of training, and a desire to celebrate the successes of others. We accomplished things as a team, and I viewed my role as the person charged with coordinating collective efforts toward realistic goals and objectives.

In other words, it wasn’t about me. It was about us.

Psychological Attributes
Volumes have been written about human psychology as it relates to the workplace. Although it’s easy to understand the importance of making cognitive connections between humans who work closely together in the same environment, the complexity of human psychology creates myriad challenges for supervisors.

That is not to say leadership requires an advanced degree in psychology; however, it does require an analysis of internal motivation. Motives generally evolve from the wants or needs, desires, objectives and goals of each employee. They are broader than incentives but are related to them. Motives come from within while incentives are normally fostered by external influences. Proper incentives through effective supervision will improve productivity and reduce absenteeism and turnover of employees. One of the best ways to improve productivity is to increase employee job satisfaction.

Good leaders know their people and adjust their style of leadership based on the individual person and situation.

To understand motives, it’s important we recognize the basic needs of most people. One of my favorite examples comes from a historic study that began in the late 1920s. The Hawthorn studies were conducted at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorn Works plant outside of Chicago. The studies sought to determine whether employee productivity could be enhanced through physical changes in the work environment. Adjustments to lighting, break periods and schedules were made; employees were solicited for feedback throughout the study.

Although the results were generally inconclusive in terms of the original research scope, the researchers did notice enhanced productivity among employees. These observations led to the conclusion that the increased productivity was a direct result of empowerment because employees felt valued for the first time. Several decades later, this phenomenon was subsequently coined the Hawthorn effect. It gives us an early indication about how empowerment can serve as a motivator that fulfils basic human needs.

What Not to Do

All good leaders will tell you they took away valuable life lessons from bad supervisors. Retired U.S. Army commander James Van Fleet refers to some of these lessons as the Seven Sins of Supervision That Cancel Cooperation.

  • Sin #1 – Trying to be liked rather than respected: Good leaders don’t make decisions based solely on what is desired but on what is best for the team and the organization.
  • Sin #2 – Failing to ask for help: Good leaders know they don’t have all the answers; they leverage the strengths of their subordinates to accomplish the mission.
  • Sin #3 – Failing to develop responsibility: Good leaders focus on career development and train subordinates to do the leader’s job.
  • Sin #4 – Emphasizing rules over skills: Good leaders allow subordinates to challenge the status quo and foster innovation.
  • Sin #5 – Judging too harshly: Good leaders keep criticism constructive and seek to improve subordinates though a variety of means geared toward individual employee strengths and weaknesses.
  • Sin #6 – Not listening to gripes: Good leaders are approachable and allow employees a forum for airing concerns and complaints.
  • Sin #7 – Failing to keep people informed: Good leaders foster communication and keep employees in the know.

Whether you are currently in a leadership position or aspire to become a leader within your organization, it’s important to never stop learning. There is always room for improvement and the first step requires a down and dirty analysis of individual strengths and weaknesses in both yourself and the people under your charge.

Take time and get to know your coworkers on a personal level. Communicate regularly and give them an open-ended invitation to collaborate on required responsibilities. Be a good listener and value differing opinions. At the end of the day, we are all working toward the same goals.

Perhaps SAS CEO James Goodnight said it best: “Treat employees like they make a difference, and they will.”


  1. Van Fleet, J.K., (1982). The 22 Biggest Mistakes Managers Make and How to Correct Them. Prentice Hall Press.

CAPTAIN REX M. SCISM (Ret.) is a 32-year law enforcement veteran and former director of research and development for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. He also had a successful military career, retiring from the Missouri Army National Guard after 20 years of service. Mr. Scism served as a public safety and private sector consultant and instructor for over 20 years. He formerly served as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Criminal Justice for both Columbia College and the University of Central Missouri, and is a frequent contributor to multiple sources about various public safety topics. Mr. Scism is a graduate of the FBI National Academy’s 249th Session and currently serves as a content developer for Lexipol.

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