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Archive for the ‘Staff relations’ Category

Impacts of coffeepot predators

May 18th, 2012

Dear Reader: Please note that the following collection of coffeepot predators is a composite based on 30 years of observation in the course of consuming caffeine. I am not currently in a coffee club and am in no way pointing fingers at any current colleagues.

At work do you ever wonder who leaves the last cup of coffee in the pot? In these instances, there is not quite enough in the pot for another full cup. However, there is too much of throw away. Because of the frequency of this, you suppose that cannot be pure coincidence. Even the most trusting soul would conclude that someone is jockeying to avoid making the next pot of coffee for the group. The coffeepot predator has struck once again.

Before we delve into this behavior, we might question the merit of this particular complaint. In other words, is such a little bad habit really worth the bother? The answer is that it could be. It depends on a number of factors including the duration and intensity of the problem. Also, we have to consider the tolerance of all people in the group.

First of all, in the stressful job such as corrections, staff unity is occasionally strained. In addition, because we depend on one another for safety, little acts of inconsideration can compound and produce fractures on this crucial working relationship. Third, offenders watch our moods and interactions. They see division, even if it is over who makes next pot of coffee. Given that and an enterprising handler, a point of departure into the set up is provided. And we all know that manipulation can lead to breaches of security, uneven enforcement of rules, introduction of contraband, and inter-collegial distrust.

In theory, a coffeepot fund is a wonderful thing. Colleagues donate money and or coffee and cream and sugar. In exchange, one can drink coffee throughout the entire workday. That is the theory. In practice, we often encounter some coffee oriented behavior the stresses the good relationship between coworkers.

Here are some irritating little behaviors connected to a coffeepot fund that can steadily erode staff relations:

Jockey – Described above, this is the person who times it so he or she never makes a pot of coffee. Although it seems like a lot of effort and observation to avoid work, this is a common coffeepot predator.

Coffees Czar – Sometimes when the coffee club is without leader, a strong figure is needed. This is a person who takes charge, the person who reminds colleagues to donate money and supplies as necessary. However, the Coffees Czar can become an autocratic, bullying and badgering figure.

Feigned failure – A passive way to avoid making coffee can be achieved when someone makes a horribly weak or incredibly strong pot of coffee. If it is bad enough, the rest of the coffee club will forbid another pot from this person. It seems unbelievable for someone to stoop to that. Still, I’ve seen many intelligent people over the years play dumb and sabotage a pot in order to avoid a task.

Flattery – Some in the coffee club will fawn over the coffee making ability of others in order to avoid making a pot themselves. Working the ego of a colleague in order to make a cheap gain seems like an act of low integrity. There are some out there who use this tactic.

El Cheapo – Most coffee clubs at one time or another have an el cheapo. These are the people who do not pay for the privilege of drinking coffee. They may promise, but they never pay nor do they bring in supplies. It’s also in the form of someone who steals coffee – waiting until it seems that no one is looking and taking a cup without donation.

It would be an empty exercise to simply identify staff dividers such as coffeepot predators. Incidentally, this is certainly not limited to corrections staff. You can find these archetypes in any number of occupational subgroups. However, since staff unity is so crucial in supporting our mission of safety, the coffeepot predator poses a more serious problem in corrections than in other vocations. Here are some solutions:

1. If there are chronic abusers but the identities are vague, a meeting can be called and this could be brought to the fore. Perhaps to avoid embarrassment, a few quick guidelines of conduct can be outlined by the coffee leader.

2. Charts or sign-up sheets can be created to fairly determine who will bring supplies and at what time.

3. Tact is important. Accusations should be proven before issued.

4. Check yourself. Be aware of your own flaws within the system before you attack others.

5. Lighten up. It is only a coffee club, after all.

6. Balance the importance of your appointment as Coffee Czar. Apply the least pressure possible when action is necessary.

It may seem strange to dissect behaviors in a group setting with a collective goal of providing coffee. However, big problems can be tied to little offenses such as undesired behavior in a coffee club. You could regard this as an awareness of potentially bigger problems. Understanding some of these behaviors and having solutions at hand is worthwhile in order to keep staff unity.

The steady drop of water through five heaping tablespoons of coffee produces a bitter brew. Much the same can be said of colleagues who maneuver to avoid little jobs and push them onto others. Like a rhythmic annoyance, the coffeepot predator never fails to irritate. Little things mean a lot. Positive staff relations can be strained through minute, steady applications of ill-will. But they can be repaired through awareness and action.

Staff relations

Tale of the Model Citizen

December 16th, 2011

There are so many challenges for anyone employed as a corrections professional. But staff division is a very interesting issue in corrections. This is because of the impact of it bad and good potential. On the negative side, it can be the root of security problems. On the other side of that coin is the notion that the solutions are largely in our collective hands.

In general, there are two sorts of deeds done in corrections. One variety can be performed with the notion of earning some sort of credit. The other is done for the sake of doing the job right. In other words, there are climbers and true professionals.

A climber can be defined as someone who orchestrates their duties only when others are looking. They do a good job, but it is masked in insincerity and is slef-serving. Theirs is a world of positive messages of their deeds for those in de jure or de facto power. The climber will generally not do a less-than-desirable task unless it is observed by someone who can advance his or her career.

The true professional does not need an audience or Kudos in order to do a job well. It is certain that no one can act with truly altruistic motives at all times. However, the professional does not need the credit as much as the climber.

There are plenty of each kind. And each of us can range between these two poles. One small, self serving deed does not necessarily taint an otherwise professional record. Unfortunately, most of us remember the negative rather than the positive. If you are honest with yourself, it is probably easier to name more climbers that you know than the vocational heroes.

Climbers, through a long chain of possible events, pose a hazard to operations. They may, in the spirit of subtle self-promotion, spread malicious rumors about non-competing professionals. Tarnished reputations cause disillusion and lower productivity. Formerly committed staff become less security conscious. Those who see through the climber’s activities can become jaded if the climber promotes. The administration may lose authority and credibility if a climber rises in the ranks.

All of this diminishes security. Every little distraction from the main goal of safety for all chips away at the foundation of security. This may not be evident, but it is true.

Just like the prevalent issue of staff division, this problem is easy to identify. The hard part is to realize the solutions. Here are some thoughts about climbers and true professionals that may put the solutions within reach.

• Corrections staff can see through ruses. Climbers, no matter how cleverly they manipulate opinions, will eventually be discovered by colleagues. Climbers cannot hide in the long term.
• The true professional does not consciously seek to be visible.
• It is very easy to deride the overt climber. However, climber bashing exacerbates the balance of harmony in an institution.
• Self scrutiny is essential in this and all issues that surround staff relations.
• Humility is a key ingredient.
• Many aspirations are also beneficial to the mission. It is the negative examples that sometimes taint the image of promoting.
• Some climbers are effective leaders and should get the promotion based on skills rather than popularity.
• There is such a thing as too much pride in being altruistic – it is elitist. At the risk of defending the stance of the climber, anti-climbing sentiment can be so potent that it detracts from the mission.
• Each of us is a work in progress. No one adheres to the same role at all times.

Climbers and true professionals are just two of the many interesting archetypes we find in our challenging profession. We cannot all be model citizens all of the time. We are human. However, the lofty ideal is just a reach from the real. Solutions are within reach.

Self Scrutiny, Staff relations

Checkers, Chess and Contention

November 18th, 2011

The game boards are the same. There are 64 squares, arranged 8 x 8 in two different colors. Yet, chess and checkers are as different from each other as a flat screen television is to a coloring book. There are times when we are prepared to enjoy high definition and we are handed a book of simple drawing and a box of crayons.

When we are dealing with offenders, is no secret that some are very contentious. Their record seems to indicate that they retaliate to all defensive and punitive actions. For example, if you issue a verbal reprimand for violations of a minor rule, some inmates will complain all the way to the Supreme Court – very literally so. Perceptions of right and wrong are not important. Is just something of which staff should be aware.

It is prudent to prepare for the worst, of course. But is there such a thing as too much preparation? Might we anguish or squander resources on something that does not come to pass? We sometimes sit down for a game of chess only to discover that our “opponent” is looking for a game of checkers? Or is it the other way around? How do we prepare for contention?

• Preparation can be built into your routine. Logbooks and notes help jog the memory and are the basis of defense in any accusation.
• Following policy and procedure to the letter not only keeps the conscious clean, it also protects us. If you’re not one who operates in deviations and policy, accusations to the contrary are ridiculous.
• Remember the repeat offenders. If you encounter a contentious prisoner over and over through the years, you can take some solace in your growth as professional. Some prisoners are transferred often. If an argumentative prisoner transferred but is back to the institution after two years, this can be considered an opportunity for professional development. For you, that should count as two years of experience and skills accrued in his absence.
• Many people mellow. If a contentious inmate from your professional past resurfaces, stand on guard. But do not launch an offensive before the prisoner starts arguing. We have enough authority to see if the inmate has tempered argumentative ways.

• A reminder of the past may be warranted. But does not necessarily have to be use like a bludgeoning tool
• Play the game, but don’t be too absorbed in the details. It is good to have basic contingency plans. However, if you over-plan, you clutter the field with hypotheticals. Balance your planning with execution.
• Let others know if you are faced with constant contention. Chances are, highly argumentative individuals do not limit their complaints to one person. You may learn valuable coping skills or important information from colleagues.
• Do not get discouraged if a prisoner lies. In the course of disputes, this happens.
• Professionally speaking, assertion is better than aggression.

Like checkers and chess, each game of human interaction is different from the next. But the general principles of preparedness remain. And dealing with the contentious person in the past will not necessarily be identical to the next time you encounter someone of this nature.

Security, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations

Perspective on operations and change

November 10th, 2011

There’s nothing quite like a clear, starry night to make most people feel small and insignificant. The overwhelming size and complexity of the universe can pull routine thinking into a different mode. In other words, it is all about perspective.

Contemplating the cosmos relative to our own existence is one way to gain perspective. A more down to earth way, if you excuse the pun, is to ponder the many complexities of all operations as compared to your own area of responsibility.

Considering operations in the prison, it behooves us to maintain a broad perspective. It is often a matter of seeing how your work assignment fits into the larger picture. Here are some concepts that help achieve this:

Structure – Operations should flow with regularity. Schedules should be easy to remember. The rhythm of movement is like a heartbeat and circulation system. Almost all staff and prisoners like structure.

Flexibility – General operation should have a structure – but not a rigid one. There should be enough flex to accommodate deviations to the schedule. And aberrations are common enough. Some things that thwart activities starting on the dot are: fights and assaults, mistakes in meal preparation, equipment failure, weather events, and mobilizations.

Judicious corrections – Sometimes, circumstances call for radical rearrangements and rescheduling. However, as adjustments occur with staff and prisoners, we must be careful as we evaluate each new paradigm. Tweaking the schedules as necessary is important to do. But this should not be an exercise in wholesale reconstruction with many architects of varying opinions. Ideally, opinions can flow to a centralized location so unilateral, unfiltered modifications do not happen.

Interconnectedness – Usually, a new way of operating leaves us with a Rubik’s cube. When one thing is moved, there are visible ramifications that seem to further complicate the puzzle. Because of the interconnectedness of time, the intricacies of timing and the scarcity of resources, one little change can derail what was originally conceived as a smooth running operation.

Safety – Our mission statement place high priority on safety for staff, offenders, and the public. All considerations of operation should have this as a cornerstone.

Patience – A change in operations can be a stressful event for both staff and prisoners. But, time is a great equalizer. Often, we simply need more time to absorb the new changes. This is particularly true if the change supplanted an old, long-term paradigm.

I remember a lesson on perspective from my childhood. When my cousin and I were children, each of us thought that the full moon followed us. To test this, we stood back to back one night. As we walked in different directions, the moon appeared to follow each of the beholders. We both thought that the other was wrong and lying. Thus, an argument ensued. Realistically, change is not always unanimously agreed upon. It is not always welcome and is not always easy. But, larger perspective helps to make it easier and a little more welcome.

Assessing the organization, Staff relations, Training

The parable of the fork lift

October 26th, 2011

There was once a high-low driver who enjoyed her job very much. She did her job well. On her forklift she was an artist on the move. As she hauled heavy loads from tangled piles to precarious points, she and her high-low personified poetry in motion.

She manipulate machine like a well-practiced violinist plays. The high-low was her instrument. Among her skills were her muscle memory and knowledge of the machine’s capabilities. She knew its quirks and its power. Above all, she knew the layout of the shop floor. To say that she could navigate blindfolded on the shop floor was not an understatement.

Little did she know that the way she had operated for years was about the change. First, in an effort to economize, the layout of the shop was reconfigured. The routes on which she effortlessly maneuvered her forklift were in no way like they had been.

Also, the older but comfortable forklift was replaced by a smaller one. She was rendered completely ham-handed because the controls were different than her well seasoned forklift. The play on the steering wheel and brake pedal were so different from what she was used to, she wondered if she would ever adjust.

In anticipation of change, she was given some new driver training. At first, she thought that this would be beneficial. After all, she had a new machine to acclimate to. But the trainer was unsure and gave contradicting orders while monitoring the practicum. She found that because of the tight controls and nervousness of the trainer, there was too much overcorrection as she drove.

In a word, the training was nerve-racking. She was, in effect, unlearning the finesse and pathways that she developed employed for nearly 2 decades. Matters were made worse by the many subsequent changes to the layout of shop floor. It seems that once the new configuration was in place, no one could go without suggesting a change.

She learned that the only constant in her work life was change itself. The anxiety of the ever morphing paradigms and are continually retooled skills led into her life home. She became irritable and unpleasant, contrary to her vivacious and gregarious attitude.

One day, she was moving an expensive load. It seemed rather well-balanced on the skids. However, her feeling of equilibrium was displaced by the trainer who yelled instructions contrary to her movements. Because of an over-correction that she made, the high-low lurched. Four things happened:

1. The load fell to the cement floor, breaking all the specialized, expensive parts.
2. During a second of panic, she collided with a support column. The shoddy, little new forklift, far from being the heavy metal model that she was still used to, was now out of commission.
3. She fell during the collision and landed wrong. Trying to brace her fall, she broke her left wrist. Adding insult to this injury, her left hand was her dominant hand.
4. She felt that she was suddenly useless at something which she did so well for so many years.

The high-low driver was hit with many changes from the different angles. Her old, familiar fork lift – her critical tool – was replaced by something unfamiliar and of a light duty design. It is almost like when staff are thrown blind into a new computer system with no instruction. Her training was not comfortable. The map of the workplace was literally transformed into something alien – sometimes changed twice a week.

Of course, in uncertain economic times, change is more likely to occur. There’s no question that this causes stress, especially in an anxiety prone vocation such as corrections. How do we lower the stress and increase safety in the meantime? Here are some things for all of us to reflect on during tumultuous times.

• Immediate change may be necessary. But it takes time for prisoners and staff to absorb these changes.
• Old habits die hard. Long-term, engraved task patterns are hard to undo.
• Shortcuts can make long delays.
• Patient and well-conceived training will go a long way in fostering the success of new changes.
• Safety is always the most important component in corrections.
• When suggestions for change are sought, some may forward ideas in order to make a mark on the process. The suggestion may be based on ego rather than the benefit of overall operations.
• Anxiety is common in times of uncertainty. It is up to the individual to refrain from adding to it.

There were so many dimensions to change. In the end, we are all small parts to large, interconnected whole programs and safety machine. Change is not comfortable – but it is inevitable. Because of this, we must cope in the best way possible.

Assessing the organization, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations

Someone painted the word “gullible” on the ceiling

October 19th, 2011

I don’t have the figures on this. In fact, I doubt that they even exist. I do wonder, however, how many people in one hundred would look up when you tell them that someone painted the word gullible on the ceiling.

Two questions arise when this point is applied to corrections.

1. What are the dynamics that come from staff who are naturally trusting and who believe most of what they are told?
2. What are the limits of staff jokes?

Staff dynamics and the trusting type – Please note that I am using the word trusting rather than gullible. The former is probably more applicable in most cases. The latter can only be used in a pejorative sense.

We all enter the corrections profession with our own personalities. Experience, training, and interactions with colleagues and prisoners temper our individual outlooks. Some of us come in as very trusting. Then we are trained in how to avoid manipulation. We eventually see examples of how unchecked facts and assumptions place us in embarrassing situations and also in peril. In other words, some of the trust gets knocked out of most of us.

In many cases, we develop and maintain a good sense of humor. We learn that jokes will happen and that they are not always a big deal.

Still, there are some trusting colleagues who take an extreme stance on reimaging their reputation. Often, these are staff who are burned by the jokes and lies of others too often. They go from over-trusting to meticulously double-checking and triple-checking all that they hear from staff and prisoners. In this extreme, paranoia is not far away. Benevolent staff may guide this type to a more moderate stance. Less scrupulous staff may make sport of this staff member.

Prisoners who would endeavor to manipulate may detect these types and target them. In these cases especially, members of team corrections must refrain from disenfranchising colleagues. Otherwise, compromised staff become puppets to manipulative offenders.

Limits of staff jokes – There is no specific answer for the question of “What is the lower limit of staff jokes?” It varies from work place to workplace. Some institutions may be naturally laid back while others are strictly business. One will even find variations between shifts in the same jail or prison.

There are so many factors to take into account. Some of them are:
• Facility history
• Agency’s emphasis on the harassment and discrimination policy
• General sense of humor of staff
• Interactions of key members of staff
• Tone of the current administration
Even if one believes he or she has a working knowledge of all of the above, it is not fool proof. Any variable can set a simple joke into a bitter war with collateral damage. Even if a colleague plays on the trusting nature of another in the spirit of breaking tension, it may not end well.

Perhaps the best advice, quite simply, is to act professionally. When in doubt about a joke, don’t do it. Besides, the humiliation of a colleague will last much longer than a cheap, quick laugh.

So, in consideration of all of this, who is it that we should trust? The answer is that we have to trust one another. There will always be over-trusting staff and there will always be those who test their patience with “humor”. Through it all, we have to remember that prisoners and staff watch these interactions.

One of my colleagues from a Louisiana Jail offered this maxim:
“Don’t believe everything that everyone says. But, don’t stop listening.” In an environment such as corrections where things are not always as they seem on the surface, this is sound advice.

Staff relations

A drive down the road to Change

October 14th, 2011

Buckle up! It may be a bumpy ride! Our destination is Change.

A drive down a street is not necessarily the same experience for all. Imagine that we are traveling to a destination called Change. Some will want to drive full steam ahead, anxious for some new scenery. Others will dig their fingernails deep into the upholstery, resistant to the new paradigm. Between those two extremes is where most of us lie, cautiously apprehensive – but not necessarily full of trepidation.

It is amazing how the same journey can evoke different emotions.

Still, not all drives down the road to change are the same. Sometimes there are quick, difficult curves to negotiate. At other times the road is direct and unwavering. And the speed at which circumstances forces us to travel is often indifferent if the road is straight or convoluted. We might anticipate bumps and potholes and find none. Conversely, a well-plotted path may prove unexpectedly perilous. One never knows.

There are so many dimensions to the concept of change. Many books have been written on the topic. Here some just a few thoughts about change:

• Change is uncomfortable. In much the same way that a twisted road or fast acceleration in a car can bring on motion sickness, with change we feel vulnerable from the speed of events. But just because this is so, does not mean that we should not take a walk around the concept change from time to time. In fact, in times of economic uncertainty when everything is on the table, it behooves us to assess modified operations.

• Some people look at the changes only in their immediate area. Others have the ability to view the wider panorama. Operations are interconnected. A small ripple in one area may magically develop into large waves elsewhere.

• Often, change requires time for staff and prisoners to adjust. For example, if newly implemented changes do not appear to be running smoothly on day one or day two, this is not cause to rally for a complete overhaul. Rather, it is a time to make notes and to plan for possible modifications at a later date.

• A calm demeanor of staff while speaking to prisoners during times of change is crucial. Prisoners will look to staff for cues about how the change is progressing. If staff seemed tense, prisoners may become tense. If staff appear to lose faith in the leadership, prisoners may do the same. And that makes conditions conducive for tumultuous events in any facility.

• WIIFM or what’s in it for me is something that we all seek during times of change. Of course not everything is entirely bad. And even with radical changes, we may be able to find some benefit in it all.

• Some people actually enjoy change. They may become bored easily and want to experience different operations. Change for the sake of change is not necessarily done for the correct reason – ensuring smoother operations.

Years ago, one of my friends and colleagues stated, “I don’t mind change as long as I can control it.” She said this in a wry, sarcastic manner. From what I remember about her professionalism, she took the larger view and considered the mission statement of the agency. Despite her tongue-in-cheek admission about how things may not stay the same and how little control we may have over them, she was a realist. No matter how much change is uncomfortable, it is something that we face time to time.

Assessing the organization, Security, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations

Contemplating courtesy in corrections

September 29th, 2011

The cards seem stacked against me that day. Not only was Monday, but I was also scheduled to get a flu shot. I realize that a quick second of discomfort outweighs the potential of long-term upper respiratory misery. Still, it was early on a Monday morning and that hold its own challenge.

I did not see this coming. After the shot, I was offered a homemade oatmeal raisin cookie. It was delicious. And that unexpected courtesy instantly changed my outlook on the day. Maybe Mondays are over touted as the worst day of the week.

I cannot help to wonder about the possible positive impacts of a small act of kindness at work. Like the concept of “pay forward”, any courtesy can spin into many benefits – sometimes unpredictable. Among them are:
1. Increased camaraderie
2. Improved outlooks and positive attitudes
3. Reciprocal kind acts
4. The feeling of community that ultimately increases safety.
Of course, we are very careful in corrections. When a good deed is done to us, we might cynically ask what is in it for the person who performs a good deed. We ponder the motive rather than enjoy goodwill.

However, that sort of cynicism is detrimental for staff unity. It’s unfortunate that questions of indebtedness will often arise. Yet, that is the reality of the work environment in corrections.

Favors of all shapes and sizes should not automatically fall in the crosshairs of scrutiny. If our difficult to defuse skepticism cannot be turned down, then it can be softened. For example, rather than question the motive, one might assess if the person is normally the giving type. If so, then suspicions can be laid to rest. If not, then there may or may not be something afoot.

Here are some random thoughts about courtesies in corrections:
• People often use the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished”. That’s just an expression. It is not an inevitable occurrence.
• In corrections, we work with the job that quickly squelches any optimism. Unsolicited good will between colleagues keeps alive this rare commodity of positive thoughts.
• Most people eventually will shed skepticism over good deeds.
• Some colleagues, however, will never accept kindness at face value. They are few and far between. Their existence should be acknowledged though not validated. Still, they should not be ostracized, as this contributes to staff division.
• On the other side of the coin, some people are validated by excelling in giving. Unfortunately, this may become an annoyance to most. As in anything, balance is necessary.
• Sometimes, good deeds are sabotaged by jealousy. In some cases, the saboteur may not be stealthy, wishing for any type of attention – even if it is negative.
• Forced courtesy is of no value. One of the gifts that we often gain in this vocation is the ability to assess real and feigned actions. Therefore, it behooves us to avoid ruses dressed in nice deeds.
• Competitive courtesy it is another version of staff division. It is not unheard of for two staff to battle for the title of the nicest person in the facility. This breeds contempt and fosters division.
• All of us have a job to do. Courtesy is nice. However, in excess, it can obscure the job at hand. It is safe, for example, to hold the door for a colleague in the distance when prisoner traffic may pose a hazard? Safety first.
• Above all, follow policy. All random acts of kindness should be done within the bounds of policy and procedure. For example, distribution of candy canes in late December is nice. But is it sanctioned by the facility? Is it safe if one of the candy canes becomes missing and is later sharpened to be used as a weapon?

I once saw friend of mine perform an unexpected favor at the Mackinac Bridge toll booth. The Mackinac Bridge is the five-mile span that connects the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. He paid his own toll to cross into Lower Michigan and also gave toll for the person behind them. In the middle of this four-lane bridge, a car pulled up to our car and waved to my friend in gratitude.

I do realize that what happened at the toll booth in St. Ignace, Michigan is not some earth-shattering, unprecedented act of benevolence. Still, it is clear to me that it is sometimes the little things that fuel good days. This is neither childlike nor naïve to appreciate an unexpected homemade cookie. It is human nature.

Assessing the organization, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations, Uncategorized

The merits of stability and variety

August 3rd, 2011

One bit of wisdom that seasoned veterans pass on to neophytes involves predictability. Experience tells us to change up our routines from time to time. As we are continuously monitored and observed by offenders, it pays to camouflage our patterns when we can. When we use the same route at the same time each day and commit identical movements, we can become targets.

Walking in a different direction than is normal while you perform rounds may afford you another view of the same location. An offender who is not expecting you to break your pattern may inadvertently reveal a weapon or other contraband. All of this leads, of course, to a safer facility for all.

Variety, on the other hand, is often a detriment when we speak of our work personas. This is not to say that a conversation between colleagues has to remain in the tight parameters of weather, sports, and what is for chow. What I mean is that a stable personality helps foster safety.

Take the test. Which of these two scenarios do you prefer?

1. Your colleague greets you at the time clock one day. He is literally bouncing, full of energy, and extremely happy. In fact, you are a bit puzzled, as there is no apparent reason for his elation. Two days later, the same person is withdrawn. His posture suggests defeat. The next week, he exudes angry, sarcastic energy. The next day, he is jubilant. You can never predict this person’s mood.
2. Your colleague greets you at the time clock and makes a remark about the weather. He then issues an observation about some prisoner activities and then bids you a good day. This persona is one that he has had for as long as you can remember. This person is always pretty much the same every day.

The question posed prior to the scenario was, “Which of these two scenarios do you prefer?” I believe that most people would rather face scenario number two than number one. There is a comfort in stability. This, I think, is also true for offenders. Almost all of us want to know what sort of person we will deal with on a continuing basis.

Some would point out that routine in a facility can be mind-numbing. Others would ask, would it not be better if there were a smattering of volatile characters? I believe that volatility militates against security. Those with a mercurial temperament can be off-putting. And when enterprising offenders see staff keeping distance from a changeable colleague, the recipe for a set-up is evident.

Here are some thoughts about stability:

• Some people are naturally moody. As long as no one is hurt and operations are not impacted, we should accept people as they are;
• Volatile colleagues can be entertaining in an otherwise routine vocation. However, disruptions and staff division spawned by this personality type open the door for danger;
• A less-than-perfect personality that is constant is at least predictable. For example, some people are naturally sullen or grumpy. When we know that someone is likely to be crabby by nature, we are not surprised;
• Just because a person is mercurial does not necessarily mean that there is an issue of mental health. However, we should be sensitive to our colleagues’ needs and offer help;
• If you openly distance yourself from a colleague with a varying personality, you are ringing the dinner bell for the ravenous beast called staff division;
• No matter the behavior, we must remember that a colleague is a colleague. If sudden, strange behavior manifests, one could tactfully ask if something is wrong;
• Many agencies offer employee services to cope with problems in life;
• Aim for stability, but be true to yourself if doing so does not harm the facility or anyone inside.
Maintaining a stable personality, just like consciously varying routine, is conditional. Each corrections professional must make a choice on how to act and react every day. In the end, the safety of others may depend on what you choose.

Self Scrutiny, Staff relations

Brainstorming – the other side of the coin

July 19th, 2011

The brainstorming process can be intellectually stimulating and professionally satisfying. Building from the ideas of colleagues provides us with solutions for many vexing problems. Whoever said that two (or more) are heads better than one understood the importance of the successful brainstorming session.

More than ever, corrections needs productive brainstorming. Tight budgets, changing policies, and shifting priorities demand dynamic problem-solving. What better way to tear down and impeding wall than with collective brainpower?

Of course, as with any endeavor that involves human interaction, personalities can get in the way of the goal. If the brainstorming process is coin, consider that there are two sides to it. Optimistically, I believe that brainstorming coin lands as heads much more often than tails. However we find ourselves faced with the other side of the coin more often than we would like. It is true that “heads we win in tails we lose”.

Corrections staff can help a committee’s progress by recognizing common pit falls of brainstorming. Here are six of them:

Theft – Granted, good ideas developed by group should be credited as from the group. Sometimes shared ideas do not always mean shared credit. It is not uncommon for someone to offer key suggestions towards a solution and have the credit pirated away. Those who purloin ideas and wrongfully take credit contribute to feelings of mistrust between colleagues. In corrections, this is difficult to rectify.

Paralysis – When committee members treat each other as adversaries, paralysis is not far away. When this occurs, the committee hits a wall and cannot proceed. This is because members take their own ideas too seriously and fail to acknowledge the thoughts of others. This lack of compromise halts progress for necessary ideas.

Committee kidnapping – Some staff are valued members to brainstorming sessions because they deliver a wide variety of solutions. As a reputation for creativity spreads, their demand rises. In short, some people are naturals at creative thinking.
When we introduce unwieldy egos to this, a Prima Donna is born. When an ego-driven ideas person does not get his or her way, there may a withholding of further help until certain concessions are met. The demand may be for an addition of their choosing to the committee. The Prima Donna may also insist on greater recognition and wider autonomy in exchange for ideas. If the committee depends too much on one person, a figurative hostage situation may arise. In terms of playground behavior, this is like the child who threatens to take the ball home so others can no longer play.

Personalities over ideas– Clearly, good ideas should be developed and not-so-good ideas tabled. However, the cult of personality is sometimes a factor. If the committee is swayed by charisma or moved by bullying, mediocre ideas are likely to flourish. The idea is not judged by its merit in this process, but by its origin.

The conventional wisdom that begs us to consider the source should not apply to brainstorming. Ego driven committees suppress new thoughts from original any contributor who just might not happen to be a popular figure.

Lies – Some ideas are openly supported in the official meeting. Later, however, the same idea can often be sacrificed in the unofficial meeting after the meeting. Like idea theft, false promises breed mistrust.

Stagnation – When the same people meet to solve problems, the dynamics might be too stable to be effective. Safe and comfortable do not necessarily make a creative environment. An introduction of new brainstormers should make members sufficiently uncomfortable enough to inspire creativity. Someone with a new perspective can wield the figurative power of removing a keystone from seemingly immovable wall.

Here are a few things to remember when battling the six pitfalls of brainstorming:

• Share your ideas. Don’t hoard them.
• Support ideas over egos.
• Concentrate on solving the problem rather than lining one’s nest with credit.
• Share responsibility so one person does not hijack the brainstorming process.
• Be honest and forthright with all committee members.
• Let your guard down a bit and don’t be afraid to brainstorm wild ideas. These may become the foundation for something new and important.
• Mix it up. Introduce new people and ideas when stagnation sets in.

Brainstorming is not always neat or kind. The tails side of the committee coin lands upward on occasion. Good leadership, good followership, and professional maturity are factors necessary to flip over the coin. Brainstorming should be about solving the problem at hand. Too often becomes an exercise in wading through the quagmire of interpersonal relations. With the many problems that corrections has to face, brainstorming sessions are more important now than ever.

Assessing the organization, Staff relations