A Principle to Live By
A common belief held by top athletes is that they always have room for improvement. They shun the notion that “they have arrived.” This compels them to aggressively challenge themselves in the relentless pursuit of improved performance. They often pay exorbitant amounts of money to specialized coaches who nit-pick their slightest flaw. They actually pay to be criticized.
Paying someone to criticize your work might seem like a sure way to destroy your confidence and motivation, but when we carefully examine this approach we realize that it actually increases confidence and motivation over time. It’s called “The Principle of Improvement.” It is a way of conducting every aspect of your life with an honest, evaluating look inward. It is coming to grips with the fact that there is always a better way, that there will always be someone better than you, if not today then sometime in the future – all records will be broken.
Once this is understood and internalized, it grants a liberating entitlement to be wrong. You can now be secure in yourself knowing that everyone is under this same encumbrance. You are free to invite others to examine you, just as the aforementioned athletes, with the same expectation of improved performance. When one understands that it is okay to be wrong, their confidence is less impacted by criticism. They learn from their mistakes and improve, which builds even more confidence. Like a physical exercise program, when visible improvements are realized, a renewed motivation is manifested.
How it works
Police SWAT teams and other specialized policing units provide a working model of the Principle of Improvement, demonstrated by “honest debriefs” of critical incidents and training scenarios. When mistakes are made, officers step forward and explain how they erred even when the mistake would have been otherwise undetected. A high level of integrity is demonstrated because the officer really cares about the safety of team members and the betterment of the team as a whole. The officer understands that if he made the mistake, others might also. SWAT officers know the Principle of Improvement – that there is always a better way, which grants them the security to share failures because blunders are expected. The next step is to examine how never to repeat the mistake.
In this model, failure may mean death. Therefore, a committed SWAT officer exposes the mistakes of others to help them progress. This is accomplished by carefully examining the action and not the officer. Secure in this principle, the erring officer welcomes the chance to improve.
Applying the Principle of Improvement requires participants to internalize the following:
- Mission Identification – Take a step back and focus on the big picture. Ask, “what is the goal, what are we trying to do here?” This broadens the perspective and properly diminishes the specific operational errors that are questioned.
- Caring – Once the mission is identified, the participants must genuinely care – about the mission, the officers, and the organization. This creates a safe environment for growth. Personal attacks are non-existent when the participants honestly care.
- Praise – There is enough glory and praise to go around. It is not a limited prize dolled out to just a few. The Principle of Improvement flourishes when things done well are properly acknowledged. If you think that snuffing out another’s candle will make yours burn brighter, then you don’t belong on the team.
- Perfection – Anything less is unacceptable. Never acquiesce to those who say that this is an unrealistic expectation. They spread their mediocrity like a cancer. Arnold Toynbee once said, “It is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at the goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it.”
While SWAT debriefs prove as a useful model, the real potential of this principle is limitless. True leaders implement these concepts in every aspect of their lives. Their families, friends, and work organizations are positively affected by this proactive approach.
Law Enforcement’s Reluctance
Law enforcement has always lagged behind the private sector at employing this principle. This may be attributed to the intense political and legal scrutiny that agencies are subjected to and exacerbated by the egotistical personality types common to law enforcement. The result is that policing agencies have become event driven. They require a significant failure to implement change. This is true for police tactics and personnel management.
Policing agencies have never before been so severely scrutinized. Governmental bodies thrust agencies into the political arena. Litigious money-grabbers seek the large coffers of taxpayers. In short, policing agencies are darned if they do and darned if they don’t. It is easy to see how managers become afraid to depart from industry norms. It is time to shake off this fear and practice the Principle of Improvement. Managers need to be courageous enough to perpetually ask, “Why do I (we) do it this way?” and, “How can I (we) do this better?” even when it seems to be working well. This will lead to innovations that may feel uncomfortable and risky. If no risks are taken, no rewards are enjoyed. Warren Bennis identifies risk taking as one of the ten traits of dynamic leaders. Leaders at all levels of organizations are called to recognize that their current personal and organizational practices are flawed. Only through this epiphany can improvement and innovation begin.
Large egos typical to law enforcement personnel have hampered objective self, and organizational, evaluation. It takes a certain kind of person to stand up to the violent evil that plagues our streets. That same personality dislikes being bossed around almost as much as being wrong. These are the kind of people that seek heroism. It is extremely unnatural for them to stand up and admit that they screwed up. However, once they feel the safety of knowing that we all fall short, they are empowered to expose their weaknesses for the betterment of all. Ironically, officers and managers that practice this principle are more respected. Their humility and genuine concern for others is manifested in this behavior. Ask yourself, who wouldn’t want to follow a leader who demonstrates this kind of vulnerability, integrity, and caring?
Policing organizations are so resistant to innovation that they have to be driven to change by the significant failures of other agencies. Contemplate the possibility that the Columbine school shooting, the North Hollywood bank robbery shootout, the Texas tower sniper incident, and the LAPD Rampart scandals could have been anticipated and therefore better resolved or avoided all together.
Each of these events brought dramatic change to law enforcement after significant adjudicated finger pointing. Because of Columbine, police are inundated with specialized training for handling “active shooters” and other school shooting incidents. North Hollywood stirred most agencies to deploy rifles for use by field units. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates credits the Texas tower sniper incident as one of the catalyst for creating Special Weapons and Tactics Teams (SWAT). The Rampart scandal forced agencies from coast to coast to implement multi-tiered safeguards against corruption. These are all examples of how law enforcement is reactive and driven by events.
Implementing the Principle of Improvement is a proactive response that perpetually questions current policies and procedures with sometimes-painful honesty. Managers who practice this are keenly aware that the way police work is done presently will be improved upon in the future. In other words, the way that it is done now is, in some way, wrong. This realization allows managers to release personal attachments to self-created or cherished policing practices. Jim Fraser further explains, “It is like granting permission to call my baby ugly.” Now managers are free to proactively seek innovations that will avert or curtail the impact of the next evolutionary law enforcement event.
The Principle of Improvement is not a newly discovered concept. Top performers in every field live by it daily. Athletes solicit the most scrutinizing criticism in their pursuit of improved performance. World leaders have speech coaches and image consultants to point out and eradicate weaknesses. The key is to never be satisfied with your method, policy, or performance, because one day it will be obsolete.
Law enforcement agencies have been reluctant to embrace honest inward evaluation and have therefore become event-driven, reactive organizations. Ironically many agencies hold within them a good working example, the honest tactical debriefs conducted by SWAT teams. The key is to more broadly apply the concept organizationally and at the personal level.
Like anything worthwhile, obedience to the Principle of Improvement requires a serious effort. It is not enough just to say, “I want to get better at what I do.” It calls leaders to view mistakes as opportunities; and seek criticism as a means to hone skills, make innovative changes, and circumvent future mistakes. This is a concept that, over time, will increase confidence and motivation personally and organizationally. It is a vehicle by which leaders demonstrate integrity and humility, which in turn bestows credibility.
References 1. Toynbee, A. (quote verified via web site) www.quotationspage.com 2. Fraser, J. (2003, October). [Personal interview with James Fraser of Fraser & Associates]