Human-Centered Leadership
Thursday, September 1, 2022
by: Laura Bedard, PhD, CJM

Section: Guest Editorial

Laura E. Bedard, Ph.D., CJM

I started my career in corrections in 1984. I assume some of you hadn’t even been born yet. I was young and naive. I had never been in jail before, didn’t know anyone in jail and kind of “fell” into this career by accident. It wasn’t easy in the beginning. As a woman, I got pushback mostly from staff—not inmates. People wanted to know why a girl like me would want to work in a place like that. Frankly, I liked the challenge and I enjoyed, and still do, meeting interesting people (on both sides of the wall).

Since I started working at 14, I had an established work ethic. I knew I was expected to be on time (which is early in my book), keep my head down, and work hard. I grew up “old school”; after all, I am a baby boomer. Our “appreciation” was in the form of a paycheck each week. When I entered the workforce, most people started a job and planned on retiring from the same place 25 years later—not today. We are lucky if they plan to stick around for five years. There were no celebrations or formal awards. We didn’t get trophies for what was expected. We didn’t complain as our supervisors wouldn’t permit that.

Welcome 2022! My, things have certainly changed. Leadership is hard. I think it is particularly hard in the field of corrections. Leadership challenges are acerbated by this post-pandemic “Do I have to work?” culture. The corrections profession itself is challenging—after all, we deal with difficult people. We deal with people at their lowest point in life—coming in the backdoor, in handcuffs, high or drunk, wondering about their fate. We don’t get thank-yous or accolades for what we do—we just do it. Staff is often stressed and these recent workforce challenges have put them under more pressure than ever.

So, how do we as leaders let our staff know we appreciate their efforts while at the same time maintaining a high level of professionalism? We need to lead with a “human-centered approach”. Human-centered leadership is leadership that puts people first. If we take care of our people, they will take care of the tasks that need to be done. Human-centered leadership focuses on the people, whereas traditional leadership focuses on the tasks, deadlines, reports, and outcomes. Don’t misunderstand, those things are important for success as well. It’s how we get there that has changed.

Staff needs to see their supervisors walking and talking; being visible, and asking them if they need anything. We need to tell them they are appreciated for their work and get their input on projects and processes. We need to engage and empower them. Most people, especially our younger workforce, want to be recognized for their contributions to the workplace. This group of employees requires constant praise (remember they are from the ‘everyone gets a trophy’ era). We baby boomers aren’t used to praise and when we get it, frankly, it’s a bit uncomfortable. This current group requires deeper engagement and a greater sense of belonging if they are to stay.

Here’s what YOU can do to assist in getting them the attention they need. Get out from behind your desk. Let the staff know they are doing a great job. For those who are not, pull them aside and have a candid conversation on the areas in which they need to focus. Believe it or not, the staff appreciate the candor. Encourage candor from your front-line supervisors as well. Stress that they are supervisors first and foremost and remind them that friendship can get in the way of career development. Let them know morale is a first-line supervisor issue. Each first-line supervisor must be responsible for the morale of those in the chain of command. Empower them to make decisions and try new things.

Make sure you have the right people in the right seat. Not everyone is a good confinement officer or does well with the booking paperwork. Find their strengths and put them in an area where they can excel. Communicate—for leaders that may mean simply listening. It is amazing when you sit down and simply ask people what their plans are and how you, as a leader, can help them get there. Make it a point each year to sit down with middle management at your facility and have these conversations. It helps open the line of communication, and hopefully, it models the behavior you want to see them do with their teams.

In these challenging times where good people, or people for that matter, are hard to find, leadership is more important than ever. We need to adapt our leadership style to a challenging and scarce workforce if our teams are to be successful. Human centered leadership can help your team reach its’ potential.
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