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Gene Atherton Institution Management
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Success with one is success with many

Too often correctional leaders feel entitled to overlook relationships in favor of task accomplishment

By Eugene Atherton

I remember a promotional interview for Warden in our correctional system. I suggested that effective leaders encourage successful relationships among staff in order to achieve success. When asked how that could be done, I answered, "One relationship at time." Now, at the time I was not sure of the meaning of the statement. It sounded right…and I got the job.

Since then I have given considerable thought to the idea. My conclusion is this: If you get it right with one person at the work place, it means you both feel very comfortable with one another. You trust each other and immediately begin to experience an extremely productive and rewarding professional relationship. It is not as easy as it sounds.

However, once you get it right, it is entirely possible you will have the same experience with many others. You have to commit. Once others have experienced the synergy as a result of the experience, everyone involved begins to want the same experience with others. It is contagious. It can create a "tipping point" that changes your correctional organization in numerous ways. Where distrust, divisiveness, and angry conflict existed, people begin to dialogue and work together in ways never thought possible to meet the challenges of corrections. For most organizations, this experience is a huge resource waiting to happen.

Too often correctional leaders feel entitled to overlook relationships in favor of task accomplishment. It comes to the point where the task is always more important than the relationship and others are expected to endure. In fact, "When it matters most, we are often at our worst behavior." Truly successful correctional leaders know when it is time to stop and create the atmosphere that sustains relationships, making it safe to dialogue and engage.

Getting there can be tough, but it can start with one individual that perseveres by displaying the philosophy and skills that keeps the door open to effective relationships. These skills can be learned. That person can be you. You in your relationship with others can make current, seemingly insurmountable challenges be exciting opportunities for shaping the future of corrections.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Stephen R. Covey, 1989, Fireside Publications, Habit Seven Video "Sharpening the Saw".
The Tipping Point - How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell, 2000, Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, and Company.
Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High, 2002, Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler, page 232, McGraw-Hill.

About the author

Currently in his 33rd year of service in the criminal justice field, Gene Atherton is contracted to serve as the Institutions Program Manager for the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center Rocky Mountain Region. He served 27 years for the Colorado Department of Corrections. After promoting through the ranks, he became Director of Prisons for the Western Region in Colorado until retirement in 2004. For the last fifteen years Mr. Atherton has served as a technical assistance consultant and trainer for the National Institute of Corrections on a variety of topics related to corrections. He has served as an author of numerous ACA publications. He has provided evidence in Federal Court as an expert witness on a variety of correctional issues, including conditions of confinement, use of force, unlawful discrimination, and management of high risk offenders. He currently serves as a member of several committees for the American Correctional Association.

Atherton joins CorrectionsOne through the Correctional Management Institute of Texas. See all the CMIT columnists here.

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