Police Leaders Mentoring and Coaching Their People: the Cornerstone to Top Performance in Crises

I have written about The United States Marine Corps (USMC) Small Unit Decision Making (SUDM) initiative to support their effort to “improve the ability of small unit leaders across the Marine Corps to improve their intuitive ability to assess, decide, and act while operating in a more decentralized manner.” Sounds very familiar to what policing has been talking about and looking for in our efforts to improve individual and team performance in handling crisis.

Behavioral science, has evolved and have some great recommendations policing can learn from and implement in their training methodology. Rote lecturing to a Power-Point deck is no longer an acceptable way to develop our people. Experiential learning  is the most effective and efficient professional development process possible. Policing must make this shift in developing our people at a much more robust intensity if we expect those responding to crises to be effective tactically. Lets start teaching them how to think and do and stop telling them what to do!

Pertaining to individual and small unit decision-making, bridging behavioral science and theory into actionable practice is among the greatest challenges police training faces. Although not perfect, the behavioral sciences associated with human performance, learning, instructional design, and decision making have matured significantly over the last 30 years. There is qualitative and quantitative evidence that this science works; that is, certain learning strategies reliably support more effective and efficient development and assessment of decision making, and particular observation and feedback techniques predicatively allow instructors to enhance student’s decision-making development processes.

Already, there are areas of excellence throughout the Policing that offer training and education on the individual and Small Unit Decision Making (SUDM) core competencies (sense-making, problem solving, adaptability, Meta-cognition and attention control). Yet, these areas of excellence are the exception and not the rule in policing. One of the goals must be to better link these best practices to their scientific and theoretical underpinnings and then challenge the institution, as a whole, to employ these science-supported best-of-breed interventions deliberately and consistently throughout police training and education.

Deliberate Instruction for Small Unit Leaders

Small unit leadership (Police Sergeants) has always been a cornerstone of policing, and many top performing police sergeants already demonstrate excellent decision-making, coaching, and mentoring skills. However, the best small unit decision makers have developed their cognitive capabilities without the benefit of deliberate institution-wide support. Therefore, police leadership must seek to better support small unit leaders by providing them with the most effective and efficient professional development process possible.

The training and education community’s goal is to provide police officers with a set of tools that reliably enhances small unit leaders’ decision-making skills. Enhancing their cognitive skills increases readiness and their ability to accomplish the multitude of missions that may be assigned to individual officers and small units in current and future operating environments.

This approach has three mutually supporting components:

  1. Meaningful Experience: Increase police officers repository of meaningful experience through a host of live, virtual, and constructive training and education interventions. Meaningful experiences are ones that specifically help a individual or small unit recognize patterns and build stronger mental models.
  2. Focused Feedback: Restructure and emphasize police discipline(developing people) to include counseling, coaching, and mentoring . These leadership engagement initiatives include refinements to the  police’ after action review (AAR) format and greater utilization of cognitively focused instructional delivery techniques.
  3. Cognitive and Relational Skills: Establish the requirements, standards, and techniques to formally develop a core set of cognitive and relational skills that support a police officers ability to assess, decide and act in a more decentralized manner.

These collective efforts will enrich police officers’ mental models, help them develop more efficient cognitive processes, and teach police officers how to learn like experts so they can maximize their experiences.

Mentoring and Coaching

Helping police leaders, learn how to coach and mentor people, outside the context of a formal prescriptive counseling program, is important for developing expertise. With very little cost, the Marine Corps would be able to teach its small unit leaders how to guide and facilitate a discussion, explain their decision-making processes and rationales to their units, and help their personnel get the most out of deliberate performance and practice opportunities. These efforts would enable small unit leaders to better articulate and share their experiences, with the ultimate goal of helping small unit leaders consistently embody professional development philosophy.

Every police officer, especially Sergeants and above, has a requirement to “develop their people” through mentor-ship. Leaders have to be held accountable for implementation within their units. Leaders have to be held responsible for inspiring Decision-making competencies in the same way they are responsible for their officers and units’ activity reports. Policing effectively is about much more than the tangible easy to measure numbers. Its also about the intangible, not so easy to measure competencies that make up human performance, learning, instructional design, and decision making. 

Stay Oriented!