The Why Whisperer

Why. A simple three-letter word that has a profound effect on people.  It also carries many meanings depending upon where, when and how it is asked.  The Why question is too often taken as a challenge to authority.

Parents and Child BoxesMom: “Ok, Jimmy it’s time to go to bed.”
Son: “But I’m not tired and my friend Billy doesn’t go to bed this early!”
“James, it’s time for bed!”
“Because I said so!”

If you are a parent of a child above the age of two, you have had this conversation more than once.  As a Field Training Officer (and later as a supervisor), I experienced the Why question many time from rookie probationary officers in training and seasoned, veteran patrol officers.  Early in my FTO life I did not handle the Why question very well. My answers were mechanical: “We’ve all ways done it this way!” or “That’s what Sarge wants.” or the classic “Because I said so!

“It all starts with clarity. You have to know WHY you do WHAT you do. If the leader of the organization can’t clearly articulate WHY the organization exists in terms beyond its products or services, then how does he expect the employees to know WHY to come to work?”
~ Simon Sinek, Start with Why

My experience as a rookie during my own field training was less than stellar. My FTOs were good cops, just not good teachers. And they did not like Why questions.  But I did learn from my FTOs. I learned how to fill-in-the-blanks on official reports, which report forms to use, and where to take my squad to get washed.  All very important tasks to keep everything in a uniform and proper law enforcement order.

As a rookie, I was given the super secret ninja police technique that would successfully start a fight when someone committed the heinous felony of pissing off the police. When someone challenged your authority, raise your voice. If that was ineffective: close distance, yell, and add profanity for effect. Oh, and “Probable Cause” was something to figure out when writing a report…after the incident was over! (It was a different time and place.)

I successfully completed FTO training and my journey to find the Why continued. My supervisors, many who were military veterans, were not pleased with my quest for knowledge.  It began to feel like they knew the location of the Lost Ark and were taking it to the grave.  When pressed, they would answer, “That’s the way it is,” or “That’s the way it’s always been.”

Along came a new Sergeant who felt the frustrations of the young officers in his charge.  He took the time to teach us the Why.  We didn’t always agreeing with the What or the Why, but at least he was able to put a face on it. That young sergeant became of source of information and inspiration. He was a “Why Whisperer.”  Being a new sergeant, he was assigned to the midnight shift…and it soon became a requested assignment for young officers. Why? He took the time to answer, to teach, and to grow our knowledge.

The new crop of recruits coming from the academy are the children of Baby Boomers.  Boomers are notorious for asking Why – a trait, which has been passed on to their children. Many FTOs and supervisors describe these new Millennial officers as entitled and not engaged in the workplace.

When pressed about what makes them entitled, the usual answer is “They want everything right now.”  What the Millennials want is to experience (translation: they want to learn!).  They want to learn about all aspects of policing. They want new experiences for personal growth.

How does the model used in most law enforcement agencies compare to the Millennial mindset?

To be considered for a specialty position (such as detectives or tactical unit or traffic enforcement), agencies often require:

1. A minimum 3-4 years experience in patrol duties, plus

2. A 5-year commitment, once assigned to the specialty unit.

If you are in a larger agency of 100-150 sworn officers, the wait may not be long.  For smaller agencies of 25-50 officers, the wait for a specialty position opening could seem like a lifetime!

If the Why is so old no one can remember why, it’s time to change it.

So here is my challenge to the FTOs and first line supervisors:  Become “The WHY Whisperer.”  Find out the Why and teach it. If the Why is so old no one can remember why, it’s time to change it. Work to change the Why.

And before you say “I’m just a _____  (insert your rank here.)“ …you would not be in your position or rank if you were not a leader.  Step up and be the leader. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.”

To those in command staff, look for ways to engage your new officers. Possibilities are endless but here is a start: short, temporary, rotating assignments once the new officer finishes his/her probationary period.  Assign them to a specialty position for 2-3 months at a time and then return them to patrol. Think of the experience and knowledge the officer acquires about the job, the department, and serving citizen at a higher level.  Become a growth agency that values the Why.

Break the mold. Don’t adopt someone else’s best practices. Create your own that are unique to the agency and the citizens your serve.  Welcome creative solutions from all levels of the organization.  Seek out suggestions from your Millenials; give them a voice. You might be surprised by their suggestions. Why? They are the future, that’s why!


Thomas Dworak is a consultant/trainer for The Virtus Group, Inc, a firm devoted to developing public safety leadership. Thom can be reached on Twitter @DworakT.