Vol. 76, No. 3External submissions

Understanding motivation

The supervisor's role in officer retention


Several years ago, Gallup Management Journal conducted a multi-year research project to discover what makes a great workplace.

First, the researchers needed to define what "great" was. They decided that a great workplace is one where employees are satisfied with their jobs. The reason behind this decision was simple enough: satisfied employees are more likely to remain with an organization.

Using statistical techniques, Gallup analyzed data from more than 200,000 employees in 36 different organizations, and across 21 different industries to investigate the links between working conditions, employee satisfaction and retention.

At the end of the day, the results were clear: employees don't leave companies, they leave managers and supervisors. More specifically, the single biggest predictor of employee satisfaction and retention was the relationships with one's immediate supervisor.

While most law enforcement organizations readily acknowledge the importance of good supervision in risk management, training and other functions, the important role that supervisors play in officer motivation and retention is frequently ignored.

Virtually every officer who enters law enforcement wants to make a difference. They begin their careers full of energy, hope and optimism. What supervisors do from that point forward helps to determine whether an officer decides to remain with an organization or not.

If Gallup's findings are accurate, officers who are unhappy with their supervisors are more likely to leave their agencies. Of those who remain, unhappy officers are more apt to be absent, suffer from fatigue and anxiety, and less committed to the agency's mission.

Motivation and retention

In the most traditional sense, supervisors believe that the key to motivating officers is good pay and benefits. An officer's job is seen in relatively straightforward terms: if an officer follows the rules, does his job, and doesn't create problems, he will be well paid for his time. The problem with this philosophy, however, is that officers are motivated by more than money. Although pay and benefits are important, they aren't among the factors that separate productive, engaged officers from other, less-committed employees.

Motivation is the force responsible for why officers pursue certain goals, how hard they work toward those goals, and the degree of adversity they are willing to overcome. Motivation can be further divided into extrinsic (outside the person) and intrinsic (inside the person) factors.

Employees are typically motivated by a combination of external (i.e., pay and benefits) and internal (i.e., sense of purpose) factors. Of the two types, internal motivation is most strongly correlated with officer commitment, job satisfaction and retention.

Because of the common belief that officers are motivated primarily by pay and benefits, many supervisors feel powerless to motivate their subordinates. This is simply not the case. By understanding and applying the basic principles of motivation, supervisors can have a significant impact on officer job satisfaction, morale and retention.

Extrinsic motivation

In simplest terms, behaviour is a function of its consequences. Behaviours that are rewarded are more likely to be repeated under similar conditions, while behaviours that are punished are less likely to occur again. The effectiveness of a reward depends on four factors: perception, timing, consistency and contingency. In other words, the reward must be valued by the person receiving it, be given immediately, consistently applied each time the behaviour occurs, and contingent on performing the correct behaviour.

One of the simplest and most effective rewards is praise for a job well done. Supervisors should take every opportunity to thank their officers both publicly and privately for their hard work. Simply acknowledging an officer's hard work goes a long way toward job satisfaction and morale.

In his book, Bringing Out the Best in People, psychologist Aubrey Daniels maintains that when supervisors fail to tell employees that their hard work is appreciated, they assume the opposite — that is, their supervisors and organization don't appreciate their efforts.

While extrinsic motivation is clearly important, it has its limit. To begin with, extrinsic rewards provide a short-term solution to a long-term problem. While praise and other extrinsic rewards can be an effective way of generating enthusiasm, the results are usually short lived.

Secondly, relying too heavily on extrinsic rewards can actually demotivate employees. By focusing on the short-term effects of extrinsic rewards, employees fail to tap the longer-term motivating effects of personal growth and achievement. Rather, they adopt an "if-then" attitude toward performance. When this happens, an officer's performance and likelihood of remaining with an agency are contingent on the type and frequency of external rewards he receives.

Unfortunately, over time, extrinsic rewards lose their lustre, leaving the agency with an unmotivated and unproductive officer, who, in all likelihood, will look elsewhere for greener pastures.

Intrinsic motivation

In contrast to the external motivators (praise, money and promotion) linked with extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation is internal. It taps the natural human needs for achievement, responsibility and growth. In his 2009 book, Drive, author Daniel Pink identifies three key components of intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

The first factor, autonomy, refers to the natural human tendency to direct our own lives. Autonomy is different from independence. It means having the freedom to choose how, when and where one's work gets done. People who have autonomy are more likely to develop intrinsic motivation for their work.

Law enforcement supervisors can increase officers' feelings of autonomy by allowing them to select which tasks to focus on, as well as how those tasks get done. When appropriate, Pink further suggests allowing employees to choose who they'll work with to accomplish those tasks. By permitting employees to make choices, the responsibility for results no longer rests with supervisors alone, but also with employees. Thus, it's important that supervisors hold officers accountable for results.

The second facet, mastery, represents the innate desire to grow and develop. Everyone yearns to be good at things they are passionate about. This can be seen anytime a person is absorbed in a task they truly enjoy. Mastery, however, is an asymptote, meaning it can only be approached but can never be fully attained.

Mastery focuses on learning, competing against oneself and striving to do better. It's the very opposite of the performance-based outcomes emphasized through extrinsic rewards. In other words, if I do X, I will get Y. However, in order for an employee to pursue mastery, he must believe in his ability to improve. Mastery requires continued effort over a long period of time.

Officers who don't have faith in themselves and their abilities are likely to give up too soon.

The third and final aspect, purpose, is concerned with doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the cause of something larger than one's self. Human beings naturally seek purpose in their work.

In law enforcement, our purpose is clear. However, over time, officers can lose track of this greater sense of purpose. Officers are only human. It can be easy to forget the importance of the work they do and the lives they touch.

Thus, it's the job of supervisors to remind officers of the nobility of law enforcement and how their individual efforts contribute to that purpose. When doing so, supervisors should use words like "us" and "we" to remind officers how their work is part of a greater cause.


Law enforcement supervisors play critical roles in officer morale, productivity and retention. As most law enforcement supervisors can testify from experience, motivated, satisfied and productive officers are more likely to remain with an agency.

Supervisors can increase motivation by using a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. When supervisors choose to use extrinsic rewards, they should do so carefully. They should ensure that the reward is something the officer truly values, is delivered as soon as practical after the behaviour, and is consistent. Most importantly, the reward should come as a surprise. This way, officers don't link performance with extrinsic rewards.

In addition to the proper and judicious use of eternal motivators, supervisors should foster an environment of learning, achievement and personal growth. Supervisors can accomplish this by emphasizing autonomy, establishing clear goals, providing immediate feedback, and assigning tasks that are difficult without being overly challenging.

Autonomy, as previously discussed, allows officers to control how, when and with whom tasks are accomplished. However, simply assigning tasks is not enough. Officers require clear, specific goals, and immediate feedback about their performance. Nothing is more frustrating than ambiguous goals and poor feedback. It's the supervisor's job to assign clear, specific tasks, while officers are responsible for determining how and when the job gets done.

Finally, officers will perform best when assigned tasks that are challenging, but not overwhelmingly complex. People naturally like a good challenge and will rise to the occasion given an appropriate level of difficulty and learning. However, when tasks are too difficult or too complex for an officer's skills level, they are likely to throw in the towel, and, even worse, refuse to take on similar challenges in the future.

Brian D. Fitch, PhD, is a lieutenant and a 32-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Dr. Fitch holds faculty positions in the psychology department at California State University, Long Beach and Southwestern University School of Law. He can be reached at fitch@cjinstitute.com.

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