10 steps to becoming a change agent in corrections
Change is necessary to grow and remain relevant, but how do you get risk-averse decision-makers to buy in to your ideas?
By Mark Kollar, C1 Contributor
“If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less” - General Erick Shinseki
Are your 40+ hours a week in the workplace building your ideal career and department, or are you working hard to help someone else achieve their goals and vision instead?
In public service, we all work for someone else; however, this does not preclude the possibility of exerting your influence and leadership to effect change within the organization.
Whether it’s an idea for an improved shift schedule, a more comfortable corrections uniform, or a new specialized unit, COs are full of great ideas that, if implemented, would make our agencies a better place to work. After all, change is necessary to grow and remain relevant, but how do you get risk-averse decision-makers to buy in to your ideas, particularly if you hold no rank?
Following these 10 steps will increase the likelihood of your voice being heard, with you becoming the “change agent” officer others approach to pitch their ideas to as well:
1. Build capital
This is perhaps the most important, yet most overlooked, key to becoming an effective change agent.
If you are known as the lazy, negative, or otherwise “difficult” CO, your ideas will likely never be given a fair hearing.
Before presenting your ideas, you must first build capital within the organization by doing what you are told, always giving your best effort and remaining positive, even in difficult times. Whether you are in a position of official authority or not, an effective and influential change agent must lead by example, have strong relationships built on trust and ultimately, gain the respect of the administration. If you are lacking in any of these areas, concentrate on changing your own behaviors and improving your reputation prior to tackling larger departmental issues.
2. Pick your battles
Remember the story of the little boy who cried wolf? If you approach the administration on every little issue, you will be dismissed as just another complainer. Instead, don’t sweat the small stuff. Save your voice and influence for important issues facing the agency – particularly if your proposed solution is so innovative and novel that it could meet resistance.
3. Fully understand and research the problem
Look at the problem from all possible perspectives, not just your own. Consider how the problem and solution may affect all of the personnel within the agency. For example, your solution may make your job more efficient, but result in a dispatcher or clerical staff’s work becoming exponentially more difficult.
Think about why things are currently done the way they are – is it just because it has always been done that way, or does it meet some other need of the organization? What obstacles would management face with your solution (or the problems they may face if they don’t make a change)? How would the issue be perceived from a public relations standpoint? What budgetary concerns should be considered?
With knowledge comes power. If you haven’t done your homework on the problem, your proposal will not be able to withstand the objections that will need to be overcome to implement change. It is your job to educate the administration and to be prepared for the opposing arguments.
4. Take the proper approach
Depending upon how drastic your proposal may be perceived, and your relationship with those you are pitching the idea to, your approach should vary.
For a minor, low-level change your direct supervisor has the authority to implement, an informal proposal can be made during casual conversation without trying to force an immediate decision. Give them time to contemplate your ideas, then a day or two later, inquire if they’ve had an opportunity to consider the suggestion.
For more significant changes, ask for permission to schedule a time to meet with the decision-makers – a captive audience during a formal meeting affords you the opportunity to explore the issue more deeply without fear of your thoughts being immediately dismissed. Look for something the administration has said in the past, and then incorporate that into your approach. It is hard for someone to argue against their own statements.
5. Propose solutions, not problems
It is not advisable to call attention to a problem without presenting a viable solution, as you may not like the solution management proposes.
If possible, provide multiple options of varying degrees, any one of which would be an improvement over the ways things are now. Be creative and innovative with the solution, but keep it realistic.
For larger problems, a tiered or multi-step solution may be best, affording the opportunity to assess the progress of the first steps prior to committing to further changes (and allowing for an escape or “out” if the solution doesn’t seem to be working out).
Volunteer to do additional work, research, or planning to help make the solution a reality – and don’t insist on being paid or otherwise compensated for your work if it is not offered to you. Think of the long-term benefits the solution will provide and how your “stock” with the agency will rise; the payoff for being an innovative, team-oriented problem-solver will eventually be far greater than the few hours of overtime you may have been paid to work on a solution.
6. Handle objections properly
The best way to handle objections is to first anticipate them, preparing your response in advance. Acknowledge concerns or fears and let your supervisors know you have considered those concerns in your analysis. Explain why your proposed solution minimizes those fears. Being forthcoming about contrasting viewpoints – by you mentioning them prior to someone else using them against you – deflates the adverse impact of the argument.
Public safety personnel, administrators included, are adverse to change. We like to be in control at all times, leaving nothing to chance. Change brings fear of the unknown and therefore, administrators are often reluctant to alter the mediocre “known” methods and risk the possibly of the “unknown” being far worse.
Understand that change takes time, patience and polite persistence. It is your job to communicate how the change will benefit the organization with concrete facts and examples, such as case studies of other departments who have already implemented the same change.
Acknowledge the potential risks with humility, but focus on the potential upside and the risks of NOT making the change. Highlight why the issue is currently a problem. Point out any weaknesses or flaws in your plan before your “opponents” do. This takes the wind out of those who are sure to play devil’s advocate. Your honesty about the potential downsides will build further trust and respect with the decision-maker.
7. Remain positive
Do not make “threats” of what will occur if the change is not made. There is a difference between explaining the adverse effects of the problem and threatening what will happen if the administration doesn’t accept your proposal. Be polite and respectful.
Proposing change can be viewed by those in command as criticism for the decisions they have made that may have resulted in the problem in the first place. You must defuse this so they don’t feel they need to defend earlier choices.
Depending on the circumstances, it may be appropriate to mention how the “thing” once served a viable need, but how changes in technology, perception, budget and crime trends necessitate an updated solution. Avoid being confrontational, adversarial, attacking the ideas of others, or allowing emotions to enter the equation. Keep the conversation positive, professional and forward-looking with a focus on the benefits for those you serve.
8. Allow leaders to take credit
Many times the easiest way to get an idea implemented is to frame the solution so the decision-maker thinks it was his or her idea. Allow them to take credit should they so choose. The best leaders always give credit where credit is due, but it is human nature to wish to “own” things that work out well and distance yourself (or assign fault) to things that don’t go as planned. In the end, the decision is ultimately the leader’s responsibility and they are the one taking the risks by moving forward with the change. Therefore, just accept this for what it is and be glad the department or community is benefiting from the idea.
Knowing in your heart that the change was the result of your suggestion should be reward enough, though an increase in your “stock” within the agency will manifest itself in the long term. If the supervisor does decide to take credit, allow them to do so without gossiping about it in the locker room; such talk risks undoing the positive benefit to you that being an agent of change provides.
9. Be willing to compromise
Remain calm, even in the face of ignorance, uninformed opinions and politics. Understand that for various reasons not every change you suggest may move forward or look exactly how you envisioned. Realize that even the smallest of changes are a step in the right direction. Small changes can lead to big momentum, resulting in much larger changes down the road. However, if you voice frustration by the rejections or slow pace of action in a disrespectful or confrontational manner, you risk sabotaging future projects or improvements. Accept the small changes and after they are in place, work to adjust and refine the idea to make it even better.
10. Keep trying
Don’t be discouraged by ideas that aren’t implemented or given full consideration. While it is easy to fall into the trap of becoming negative, this will not serve your long-term plan. Know when to admit defeat. Becoming a thorn in the administration’s side by continually pushing the issue will generally result in them pushing back against you and your ideas even harder. Wait an appropriate cool-down time before reintroducing the same idea, but attack it from a different perspective or with a new solution rather than pitching the same idea. If a decision is not immediately made or more information is requested, ask for a follow-up meeting and schedule it before any positive momentum you may have achieved is lost.
Becoming an agent of change can be personally and professionally rewarding. Without change and adaptation, we quickly become ineffective and irrelevant. When your influence is used responsibly and in the systematic manner described, changes for the greater good can be well within your reach.
About the Author
Mark Kollar is a special agent supervisor for a state criminal investigative agency and owns Orion LEO Consulting, Ltd., a business dedicated to improving the quality of life for law enforcement officers and their family members. For more information, visit www.lifeonthethinblueline.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.