Police Psychology | Motivation – Back to the Basics

Posted: May 24, 2016 in Rank and Leadership
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Police Psychology | Motivation – Back to the Basics

Lt. James Kiernan, Southampton Police, NY


As a student of leadership for over two decades I have examined the complexities of leading over, through and around the generational divide.  What is true for sure is that different generations are motivated differently due to different frames of reference.  Or, are they?

The answer is yes and no.  While it is essential to understand the differences in the people that you lead, there are far more similarities then you may think.  The basics still remain the same.  As long as the new generations are still being produced by human beings and are human themselves, basic motivation theory will always apply.  While the pursuit of fulfilling a need may look different for different generations, the innate desire for satisfaction of each basic need is the same for all. 

Living with Maslow

Nothing makes this simpler than  to understand then Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Without fulfilling physiological needs first and foremost, there is no other reason to be motivated.  Food and water must be provided to continue being in the world.  No generation has been able to circumvent this need.  No participation trophy has been received for those who try and don’t succeed.  They just die.

Physiological needs are met prior to someone becoming a police officer.  The screening processes will usually weed out the malnourished dehydrated types right away.  No need for a leader there.  However, as we progress up the Hierarchy our involvement as leaders become a major part of the motivation equation.  Concrete issues such as better benefits and compensation that meets the cost of living fulfill Security needs.  Although the GenY Millennials are not as motivated by fulfilling this need by being loyal to one agency as prior generations like Gen X and Traditionalists, I have noticed that as Millennials are having families, they are more motivated by satisfying security needs without uprooting.  We all got to grow up, I guess.

Moving up the Hierarchy to Belongingness is where leadership plays the stronger role in motivation.  As a leader, understanding the innate human need to belong is the best tool you can keep in your tool box.  Our profession is saturated with examples of how the sense of Belongingness motivates our officers.  Take for example the new recruit.  They start off from the outside looking in at a group of people that all dress exactly alike, carry themselves the same way, talk alike and seem to have an unbreakable bond.  To join this club that recruit must endure vigorous screening and testing.  Even after the all the tests are over the new recruit must be trained.  Not only does she get the academic training necessary to do the job but, now they are inducted, at least one step, into the club.  They are expected to dress like the group (uniform), they learn to talk like the group, they even conform to sharing the group’s political and social philosophies.


This new shiny police officer is now yours, Mr. Leader.  You can fulfill their continued need to belong and thereby motivate the individual to help you accomplish organizational goals, or, you can let them find that need met elsewhere.

If you choose the right path as a leader you will pull that officer into the fold of productivity and service.  Provide opportunity for your officers to give opinions and take part in the decision making process as it relates to the entire organization.  They do not have to get their way to feel as though they have been part of the process.  And more then that, they will respond and react in a mission oriented manner when they have been able to participate in the process.  That belonging need is satisfied when your officers are brought into the process of leading the direction of the agency.  You keep the responsibility for making the decisions that guide the department, but whenever possible, allow for as much subordinate participation as possible.  If your line workers share in the responsibility for a problem they will be motivated to solve the problems.

This sound simple, but is so seldom done.  And when it is not done you get the generational divide.  You will hear from your supervisors, “why don’t the just do their jobs”?  “They are lazy”, “We are in trouble with this generation”.

If we don’t help them fulfill their need for belonging it will be met elsewhere.  The malcontents will pull them in and like a cancer destroying that shiny new officer that just wanted to belong.

Now let’s take it to the next level.  Maslow’s next level is Esteem, or how does the recruit feel as a cop.  In the day and age where cops are constantly being criticized for everything they do, where everyone has a video to capture every interaction (and only show the bad part), and where the newspapers favor creating a good story over reporting the truth, police and corrections leaders have never been more important.  How do we make cops feel good about themselves, and especially the young officer?

As the world influences become more negative, you have to go opposite and become more positive.  Truly, society is creating an “Us vs. Them” philosophy, we don’t create it anymore, although frankly there is a lot more on the police side than you think. The leaders need to call in the young officers and tell them what they are doing right.  Like in parenting, “catch them being good.”  In psychology they say there should be three positive to every negative in order to teach somebody efficiently.  With a young officer, the ratio may be more like 5-1 or even 8-1.  Now really, have you ever counted your positive to negative statements?  We all need a little work on this one.

The final stage of Maslow’s Hierarchy is Self-Actualization – will they look back on their career and be happy with the job they did.  If you have kept your 3-1 positive to negatives, they may be able to self-actualize.  If you keep in touch after they leave, they may be able to self-actualize.  If you look at your officer and the last thing he hears from you as a leader is “Mike, you’ve been a good cop.”  Maybe they will be able to self-actualize.  And you will know, you were a good cop too when you have to self-actualize.  Help officers’ needs to be met and it comes back to you many times over.


Site Editor:  Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

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