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Do I know what is being said about me, and does it matter?

March 9, 2023  By Irene Barath


Photo credit: ©stokkete / Adobe Stock

“The most important conversations ever held about us during our career are held when we are not in the room.”

During our lives there are many times when the opinions of others impact important relationships, both personal and professional. These two paths intersect for the first time when officers are applying for the profession and recruiters check character references. The conversations held about potential hires have a significant impact on their future, and they are not in the room. For successful candidates, similar conversations then continue in both formal and informal situations during the remainder of their careers.

In police leadership training there is power in considering this statement. Asking new officers or experienced police executives to reflect on whether they believe this statement to be true creates a focus on what is being said about them and, more importantly, what they want to be said about them. “What is speaking for you when you are not present?”

Usually, training participants respond to this follow-up question by connecting to their character, reputation, and work ethic in previous interactions as what speaks for them. Each of these measures are built, like trust and respect, through consistent thoughtful actions over a long period of time. Positive things must have been said during those initial hiring character checks and so the challenge becomes: how do police professionals ensure those same positive comments will be made at every stage in their career?

Officers create their reputation, positive or negative, by their actions over time. If the reputation they have built is positive, it is likely character-driven and intentionally built, while if the reputation is negative, it likely comes from reacting without disciplined thought and care. If it is not a positive reputation the officer intentionally built, reflecting their true values and priorities, then next we challenge them to consider what can be done to change the conversation?

As part of a lesson on leadership and professionalism, officers place two words on a sticky note identifying what they want others to say about them when they are not in the room. This focus on how they want to “be seen”, “be known”, “be spoken about” and whether their actions are contributing to building the desired reputation, creates the opportunity to build congruence supporting professional practice. This activity reinforces the connection between competence and character as mutually important determinants of success.

Officers create their reputation, positive or negative, by their actions over time.

Participants in the training session are encouraged to use their sticky notes as a visual cue reminding them of what character strengths they want to be known by. Each day as officers work to deliver on the promise of their organizational mission, every officer makes choices on how to engage with the public, their fellow officers of all ranks and their family. These simple sticky notes, whether placed inside a locker door, on a desk blotter or attached to the screen of a computer monitor, can be a daily reminder of the legacy they are working to build in their personal and professional lives.

Organizations are being pressed more than ever to build public trust through professional police practices. Building this trust requires all members of police organizations to commit to professionalism. Police services can operationalize their values statements and support the development of professional service-oriented officers by both building their competence and, more importantly, reinforcing the significance of character-driven behaviour.

Assisting officers of all ranks and responsibilities to reflect on what they want people to say about them, connects them to influential role models and the value of a character-based reputation. This training session is an important opportunity for leaders to recommit to their professionalism at all stages of their career.

A police service operating on a culture of competence and character will be well equipped to deliver on the promise of its mission. Whenever a police officer’s name is spoken in any room, inside or outside of the organization, descriptors like honest, trustworthy, hardworking, dependable, caring, dedicated, fair, kind, curious and generous should come to front of mind as a result of repeated disciplined and intentional actions.

So, back to our original leadership training question: if we believe the most important conversations ever held about us, are held when we are not in the room, and we know what character traits we want others to use to describe us, can we use this information as our call to action? What is the smallest action that can be undertaken today, and every day, to create the habits of positive character? Perhaps a kind word or gesture, empathic listening or finding calm and patience at the end of a long and challenging day will be how you demonstrate leadership through action and build the legacy of character you want for yourself and your police service.


Irene Barath is an experienced police educator who has delivered training nationally and internationally, primarily on subjects related to progressive leadership practices, resilience and mental health in the workplace. The current focus of her work is mental health, police leadership, positive psychology and active bystandership training. She can be reached at irene.barath@gmail.com.


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